Speak English: That's the Goal for Newcomers

By C.K. WOLFSON

Antonio Santos is waiting.

The 42-year old Reliable Market employee, an Island resident for almost two years, is fluent enough in English to have become a department manager at the Oak Bluffs market and to teach Portuguese to English-speaking Islanders. "So why do I need a tutor," he says, explaining, "I want to improve my accent and grammar so I can have more friends; so I can express my ideas in a clever way and because I don't want to sound stupid - because I am not stupid."

Martina Sajkusova, 24, from the Czech Republic also waits. She says, "I understand some words, so I [might] know the word, but I still don't get the meaning." Ms. Sajkusova, who studied English as a school girl, would like to participate in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program to help her reach career goals and make it easier to form Island friendships.

She and Mr. Santos are among the list of approximately 100 who want to learn or improve their English - some of whom are working multiple jobs and raising families as well.

"They are incredible," says Corinne Moran, who coordinates the ESL program for the Martha's Vineyard Literacy Volunteers (MVLV). "If I was working a 40 hour week and adding 20 or 30 hours on a weekend, taking the time to attend classes would be exhausting."

The 14 volunteer tutors, who work one-on-one with 17 students, are all booked. The MVLV program, which operates on an annual budget of $7,000, can't accept new students until funds are raised to cover the modest salaries for Mrs. Moran and for more teachers to train the tutors. 20 volunteers are currently waiting to take the training class.

There have been approximately 300 ESL students on the Island from 25 countries including Israel, China, Russia, the Czech Republic, India and South America. More than half of the students are Brazilian, a population that has increased exponentially in the past five years. The Brazilian population on the Vineyard is estimated to be approximately 2,000 off-season and upwards of 3,000 during the summer months.

Many operate their own business, contribute significantly to the Island's work force and are part of a closely knit Brazilian community, often composed of a large network of relatives - the majority of whom speak only Portuguese.

Mrs. Moran tells the story of one young Brazilian man who became proficient enough in English that when two of his friends' wives were pregnant, he took Lamaze classes with them and attended the deliveries, translating for the doctor.

When there are enough tutors, the literacy volunteers take the overflow from the waiting list of the Adult Learning Partnership. The Island's two ESL programs work in close cooperation, although there are also significant differences. The Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Partnership is state-funded, classroom-based and aimed at graduate equivalency degree (GED) certification. The MVLV (formerly the Martha's Vineyard Literacy Program), receives no state funding, trains volunteer tutors rather than paid teachers, and is not directed at GED certification. But the most significant difference between MVLV and the Adult Learning Partnership taught at the Regional High School is that MVLV operates on a one-to-one relationship between tutor and student.

"Brazilians are very shy and like to work one-on-one," explains Joelma Buzetti, 31, who has worked with tutor Sunny Wilson for three years. An Island resident for almost 10 years, Mrs. Buzetti says, "Some of them give up. They start, but it's so hard."

Mrs. Moran says, "Tutoring can be customized to help people accomplish individual goals. Sometimes I've had a lesson and when my student arrived she would have other things on her mind; how to write a letter or talk to the landlord, or how to change a doctor's appointment, or what kind of questions to ask the doctor. And I was able to create a lesson."

Deborah MacInnis, the assistant director of the Edgartown Public Library and children's librarian, is president of the nine-member board of directors of MVLV. She says, "Not being able to know what to do with a bottle of pills, it's scary, whether you don't know the language or because you can't read. If you are not an English-speaking person and you have car trouble, how do you explain it to a mechanic?"

Mrs. Buzetti agrees and says, "I was always asked what it was I needed to learn. I would bring a magazine that we would read and she would correct my pronunciation, or I would ask the meaning of a word and she would tell me. Different expressions, like raining cats and dogs, are confusing, and I would come and ask my tutor."

Her tutor Sunny Wilson says, "The training course gave me more confidence about using my own creativity. I think the rewards are greater than I expected because my student, Joelma, was very dedicated to learning."

Ten years ago Mrs. Buzetti couldn't speak English or read the labels on food cans or labels. Now she runs her own cleaning business, employing as many as six people in season. She and her husband, an employee of Baumhofer Builders Inc., own their own Vineyard Haven home. She speaks English at home, "Because my kids [Andora, 11, and Gregory, nine] would rather speak English. And even when I speak Portuguese to my kids, they will answer me in English."

But she remembers, "People sometimes can be very prejudiced when you can't communicate. They treat you in a different way. They talk very slow and then very loud to make you understand. Then they get frustrated. It made me feel very bad. And sometimes when they ask me, ‘Do you work cleaning houses?' I don't like that kind of question. And I ask, ‘Do you want to know what kind of job I do? Is that your question?‚ Then they apologize and say, ‘Yes, that's what I'm asking.' But they think that if you're a Brazilian that's what you do."

Both Mrs. Moran and longtime tutor Sally Coker, who also trains tutors, try to emphasize what they call survival English, which includes the responses that enable people to explain what it is they need, to understand what's being asked of them and to function during necessary routines and emergencies.

The tutor training is done in twice-weekly, hour-long classroom sessions for a total of 18 hours. There is a two-hour follow up after the course is completed. Teaching aids such as workbooks, lesson plans and graphics such as pictures and flash cards are made available. Once trained, tutors who work with their students in town libraries or churches, are expected to commit to at least a six-month stint.

Mrs. Coker encourages potential tutors, saying, "What we tell people is to sign up and see if you are interested. They just need to like people and enjoy making friends. We learn as much as they do."

Mrs. Wilson lists the qualities that make a tutor successful: "patience, creativity, flexibility and a sense of humor," she says, as Mrs. Moran nods in agreement.

The Russian-born wife of Edgartown attorney Arthur Smith, Emma Smith, a medical assistant at Dr. Santos's office, knew some English when she arrived from Moscow almost 10 years ago, but spent 10 months working with a tutor. "Definitely, no doubt about it, it was a tremendous help," she says. "I had no one to speak Russian with. Sometimes, it takes a person so long to learn English because they have their own community that speaks to them in their own language."

Mrs. Smith adds, "So when I talk to my mother in Russian, my six-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, tells me, ‘Don't speak Russian; speak regular.' "