For the last several years, it's been the traditional one-way street walked by most every immigrant: You come to a foreign country and struggle to learn a new language.
That's still happening here, and in record numbers, as more and more Brazilians arrive on the Island and sign up for English classes.
But the reverse is also happening: A new wave of Islanders is turning around and learning to speak the language of these newcomers. Classes in Portuguese are filling up across the Vineyard. There are even waiting lists of people eager to become bilingual in Brazilian.
For the first time ever, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is offering a course in Portuguese focused specifically on the Brazilian language. That class, too, is full, and school leaders plan to add another level next year.
"There comes a time when you reach a critical mass, and it's just ridiculous for us not be to be communicating with a segment of the population that is so important," said Barbara Murphy, chairwoman of the high school foreign language department.
That critical mass is hard to measure since no census of Island population counts Brazilians alone, but their ranks are definitely growing. The number of Brazilians enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) classes in the adult learning program at the high school has quadrupled in the last three years. Their children are a growing presence in the schools, up 20 per cent from last year.
The Brazilian population on the Vineyard simply can't be ignored, and it seems a lot of people want to embrace that reality for reasons that range from economics to romance to a multi-cultural mindset.
"The big picture is that the labor force on the Island is significantly Brazilian," said David Dutton, newly registered for a Portuguese class at the Oak Bluffs library and the owner of the Good Neighbor Company, a home renovation business.
His reason for wanting to learn Portuguese is obvious. Many of the workers he hires are Brazilian. "I want to be able to communicate with them more clearly," he said. "It makes everything more efficient. It makes sense to make that work out every way you can, not only now but in the future."
The Brazilian work force is here to stay, Mr. Dutton added, especially given the demand for year-round labor. "We used to have summer college students, but no longer," he said.
Even at the high school, awareness of Vineyard economics seems to have guided many of the students into Portuguese class.
"A lot of the people in my class have parents who own a business and employ Brazilians where the lack of communication is becoming a problem in the workplace," said teacher Teresa Rodrigues, who also works as a translator at the hospital.
But there's something else at play besides business.
Jeff Agnoli, who runs most of the ESL classes through the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Partnership, said: "This immigrant group has made an overall positive impression. They've fit well in to the fabric of the community. People want to converse with them. Many of our Brazilain immigrants are educated people with a strong cultural identity."
This wave of newcomers stands in sharp contrast to the Portuguese-speaking immigrants who arrived on the Vineyard more than 100 years ago from the Azores, according to Island historian Ann Coleman Allen.
"That first generation lived completely self-contained, isolated lives," she said. "They became ashamed of their heritage and refused to speak Portuguese."
But the Brazilians here today are a "whole different breed," said Ms. Allen. "They don't want to be confused with Azoreans. They're already middle class. Their father's a Ph.D. and their mother's a doctor, but they're here digging ditches."
Antonio Santos, who started teaching Portuguese at the Oak Bluffs library last week, is a good example. He loves Brazil and can't wait to share his culture with Americans. In Brazil, Mr. Santos worked as a railroad engineer and then at a bank before coming to the Vineyard, where he works at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs.
"Portuguese is beautiful. Our culture is beautiful. Our songs are beautiful," he told his students. "I want to bring you all things from our culture."
Love and beauty are clearly some of the motivators behind the surge of interest in Brazilian language and culture. "American people are dating Brazilian people now," said Elio Silva, co-owner of E&E Deli in Vineyard Haven and the owner of a Brazilian convenience store and travel agency in Edgartown. "They can appreciate more of the relationship if they know Portuguese."
Portuguese, Mr. Silva contends, even lends itself to romantic endeavors. "Some of the words in Portuguese have a lot more feeling," he said. "Saudades [pronounced sow-DAH-dess means homesick, but the word itself has more compassion, it's more vibrant."
Portuguese, as it turns out, is not an easy language to learn. Mrs. Murphy grudgingly conceded that it's harder than Spanish because, like English, the rules don't hold fast.
But Mr. Santos is entirely upbeat about the process. A big, garrulous guy, he manages to combines toughness with a sense of humor. "You can talk a lot," he said, "but only in Portuguese."
The work appears to be paying off. Linda Norton, the director of the Oak Bluffs library and an alumna of last
fall's session, said she successfully helped a Brazilian patron find a book the woman needed.
Others are hoping to build those bridges if they can master enough Portuguese. "There's too much racial tension in the community because people don't understand each other," said Jason Cray at last week's class. "The Island has to mesh with the Brazilians because they're here. Some people say they want them to go home. I want to get to know them."