Learning English

For many foreign-born Vineyarders, integrating successfully into this community means hours, days, and nights studying and practicing the language.

It is seven o’clock on a Monday, a time when most Vineyarders are settling in for the night. Few drivers are out and the lights in the houses that line the roads are on. Parents have returned from work, children from school, and together they gather around the table for dinner.

For a small group of Island residents, however, the evening is just beginning. A handful of cars fills a side parking lot at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The school hallways, abandoned hours before by teenagers, are filled with adults laughing and catching up.

Soon, the crowds move from the halls into classrooms and, once behind the classroom doors, the talking stops. Class will not begin for another couple of minutes, but barely a peep escapes from anyone’s mouth. Students of the Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program (MVALP) will deliberate over each word they use. Conversation, which so easily flowed just minutes before, becomes a struggle, because once those classroom doors close, English is the only language allowed.

A landscaper sits next to a mother who sits next to a carpenter who sits next to a housekeeper, filling the fifteen or so desks arranged into an intimate semicircle. Most have come to class after a full day of work and many have arrived straight from their jobs. Some were out of the house before sunrise. They range in age from their late teens to their early sixties, and they are united by a desire to learn English, the language of the island they now call home.

The majority of the students are Brazilian, though some are Thai, and some are Spanish; one young woman who recently graduated from the program is from the Republic of Moldova in Eastern Europe; a young man from Nepal who also completed the advanced language class will probably be coming back, program director Jeanne Burke says, to take the advanced writing class, which is the highest of seven levels of classes offered.

MVALP began in 1998. It is the only full-service, nonprofit, free-for-students English program for adults on the Island ( The demand here is great. Each year, more than a hundred adults enroll in the program, which runs from September through May. The superintendent’s office donates the office space; the school donates the classroom. Funded by a grant from the Department of Education, MVALP also accepts private donations, but they don’t come in frequently. Returning students receive preference when registering for the classes, and some years, the waiting list can reach into the hundreds. Last year, 108 people were in the program. Of them, only thirty students were new.

The program is not for the idle learner. When they register, students commit to attending 80 percent of the classes, which run for thirty-two weeks, two nights a week from 6:30 until 9:30. Those who don’t show up can expect a telephone call at home. Many students stay in the program for years as they work their way through the levels from beginning to advanced writing.

When his U.S. visa came through, six months before he would have graduated with a degree in computer science from college in his home country of Brazil, twenty-four-year-old Vinicius Nasciento moved to West Tisbury. Vinicius arrived on Martha’s Vineyard knowing no English. “When I first came, I knew nothing,” he says before class begins one Monday evening. When he moved here, his cousin, who was already living on the Vineyard, told him about the program. It was another six months before a space was available for him. “I knew maybe hi or bye,” he says of the months before he started the program. He struggled daily. “When I didn’t speak English, I had to depend on everyone for everything. I needed people to come open my bank account with me, to get my insurance on my car,” he says. Less than two years after enrolling in the program as a beginner, today Vinicius is in the advanced class. “Now, I can do more,” he says. He hopes to eventually use his language skills to complete his college degree in this country.

It is difficult to imagine life without the benefit of communication, but it is a reality for hundreds of Vineyarders. It is this reality they try to escape by learning English. “It’s very hard,” says Vera Cacique, a graduate of the program. Vera moved to the Vineyard from Brazil in 1999 with her husband and daughter. “I moved here like everybody else, to make money fast and go back to my country, but I love this Island. And it’s great for kids,” she says. But they didn’t know English. “The school kept sending information about programs and I had to take the dictionary and, word by word, translate. I came to the class to learn, because there was no way to help my daughter with her homework without English.”

Her husband, Les, a landscaper, also enrolled. Vera studied with the program for two years. After she graduated, Jeanne Burke asked Vera if she would become the program’s first non-English-speaking counselor. The job is part-time, but the work never seems to end. Students call Vera at her small office and stop by during breaks in class. She helps them find rental homes and directs them to health-care facilities. She provides translation and a shoulder to lean on. “When I came here, I had no information and I had to discover everything myself,” she says. “I can give them information that makes it easier for them.”

Even so, the experience of learning English is never easy. “I really practice,” says twenty-three-year-old Aline Leite, who’s from Brazil: “I read books. I do e-mail; I talk to my teachers, to my boss, to my aunt, and to my other friends.” She watches television too, but not the news, which is still a little too fast for her to understand. “I love listening to the English language,” she says, at her Edgartown home, where she’s basking in her day off, still in pajamas and robe at 10 a.m. Photographs of her boyfriend, who moved back to Brazil last fall, posters, and books are scattered around her room. “I hear people talk and I think, ‘When will I speak that way? Fluently?’”

Like Vinicius, Aline started the program as a beginner two years ago. Last winter, she commuted on Saturdays with other advanced students to the Harvard Extension School for additional study. She too hopes to use English to further her schooling, but her real goal is to get ahead when she finally returns to Brazil. “When I do go back to Brazil, knowing English will help me find a better job,” she says. “I was working as a secretary at a school in Brazil. I was making a little money, but it was too expensive to live. The cost of living is high, but not as high as here.”

“They are doers; they are getters,” says Jeanne, who started as an English as a Second Language teacher in the program in its second year and became the director in 2002. “They are out there every day working, sometimes seventeen hours a day, and still they show up here, because they know it’s important to them.” It’s not only important, but a necessity. Jeanne speaks of students who know enough English to call 911 in an emergency, but not enough to tell the police their address. She has students who don’t know how to tell the cashier at the grocery store that they have not received proper change: “They say, ‘I didn’t have the language. I didn’t know what to say.’”

But, what keeps Jeanne going are the success stories. Graduates often return and volunteer with the program in the classroom or as translators. Some now own their own businesses here. Many include their program certificates in job applications. “The students that are in our program are a big part of our community,” she says. “Their children are in our schools. They are out in our community, and they’re working. We give English classes and they give back to our community.”