International Studies major Alex Martin has been gaining an increasing level of notice from the time he was publicly honored by the Mobile chapter of the Governor’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities. The University of South Alabama senior possesses the extraordinary ability to accurately speak basic functional conversation in 13 different languages. Martin was awarded the 2013 Student of the Year by the organization, receiving a certificate for his accomplishments at a ceremony held in Mobile.
“I was gladly honored to be attributed to this award. It is a blessing … somehow they noticed me!” Martin said recently. “I think my accomplishments with foreign languages helped me earn the award.”
During his acceptance speech, Martin was able to entertain, congratulate and give thanks in Chinese, Greek and German. His well-received discourse demonstrated his mastery in a wide range of linguistic styles, even though the scholar does not consider himself fluent in a language until he has a vocabulary of 400 words, can speak about any topic and can change subjects instantly. Of the 13 languages Martin can speak, he is skilled enough in nine to uphold his self-imposed language standards.
Martin has always possessed a unique capacity for accelerated learning. As a preteen, he became intrigued by the solar system. Similar to many students at that age, Martin could name each planet in the solar system. But unlike his classmates, he could also name every moon. This is quite a feat when one considers individual planets can have as many as 27 moons, and there are more than 160 in the solar system.
“Once he is interested in something, it is intense, and he effortlessly dives head first into whatever subject he is interested in,” Alex’s father William explained.
Art was another influence upon Martin’s intrigue with languages. He enjoyed drawing portraits and creating comic strips for entertainment. Much of his work was inspired by a love of Manga (Japanese comic books) and Anime (Japanese animation). Appreciation of the cultural art forms led Martin to teach himself the Japanese language at the formative age of 13. Artistic expression also helped Martin appreciate the lettering systems and organization of words in linguistics.
“The most fascinating thing about foreign language is the handwriting system,” Martin said. “Chinese incorporates more art into the characters themselves, which evolved over time into their present form.
Arabic is written a different direction, from right to left, so there is a sense of art to it. So I think that part of my inspiration is from me being interested in art.”
Practically raised amidst the book stacks of the local library, Martin used the resources at his disposal to assimilate Japanese on his own with no prior exposure to the language. He tackled a second language by taking German classes as a student at Davidson High School.
Martin’s general interest in foreign languages may stem from his own cultural diversity as the son of a West Indian mother and a southern American father. He was born in the Bahamas prior to relocating to Alabama, where he has resided ever since. Alex’s father, who is multilingual himself with four languages, introduced his son to foreign language at the age of two by teaching him how to count in multiple languages.
Campus activities enabled Martin to practice his language skills. He is a member of the German society, attends events held by the Muslim Student Association and celebrates the Chinese New Year. Martin also makes a habit of engaging in conversation with foreign students he meets on campus.
According to Martin, Swahili is the most difficult language. While attending an African church in Mobile, where some in the congregation were Kenyan and Tanzanian, the student was able to accurately introduce his parents to the congregation with an interpreter mirroring his every word.
Martin also frequently bumps into foreign students abroad. During a trip to Los Angeles in 2011, he visited the Little Tokyo Historic District.
“We went to the Kinokuniya bookstore. It was great; I got to buy some manga. I saw that there were two Japanese girls in there and I spoke with them to practice my Japanese. They were impressed I was able to speak to them,” Martin said.
The undergraduate lists Greek as his favorite language. His parents commented how they often find their son watching Greek television and laughing at all the jokes. A friend of the Martin family used to speak to Alex in Greek as an infant, which may have fostered an early familiarity with the language.
Due to his talent, some may be surprised that Martin also struggles from an invisible disability. This distinction describes people with disabilities that are not readily visible by one’s outward appearance. As a result, helping people understand the difficulties of such a condition can prove challenging.
“Alex tends to savor subjects or words longer than the average person. And he also tends to think faster than the average person. So even though you know the topic may be at hand, he has already left it,” William Martin said. “He has already answered that and gone on to something else. So when the time comes for him to answer, he has to come back to it. He appears to be slow, but he’s actually faster. It took me years to figure that out. He’s actually faster than I am.”
Yet the blessing of Martin’s accelerated learning abilities proved to be an obstacle to higher education. Requirements such as the SAT proved to be overly challenging for the disabled student when compared to the average student due to the rigid time limits, length of the tests, and the amount of uninterrupted concentration necessary.
Martin’s personal struggle illustrates one of the many flaws with standardized testing, as it provides a quantitative rather than qualitative analysis of intelligence. Had he not been able to succeed, Martin’s potential may have been left unfulfilled. Thankfully, with the support of his mother and various practice booklets, the student was able to reach his goal.
“It feels good to overcome the challenges of my disability. I have progressed throughout the years,” Martin expressed.
Martin originally attended Bishop State Community College for two and a half years, successfully obtaining his associates degree in general studies. Then he transferred to USA in 2012 to complete his bachelor’s degree. While on South’s campus, Martin has studied Chinese and Arabic while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in all his language classes.
Resources such as USA’s Student Disability Services are designed to equalize the educational experience of students with special needs. Martin receives accommodations that ensure he is not operating at a disadvantage in comparison to other students. Those struggling with a disability related issue are strongly encouraged to register their medical documentation with their university in order to receive assistance with their specific academic challenges.
“When it comes to taking tests I have to have extra time,” Martin said. “I have to go to the resource center in a quiet room just to take the test. Sometimes I do it on a different day so it won’t conflict with my other classes.”
After graduation, Martin’s future goals include attending a graduate school with advanced courses in languages and studying abroad. He plans to use his International Studies degree to work as a translator or interpreter, or in a government agency. Another possibility is tutoring foreign students or being employed in international business.
“I am excited about the possibility of traveling and seeing other countries. I’m thinking about maybe Egypt to visit the pyramids, China, or Japan. I would like to see Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square,” he said.