If you are learning to speak English on the Vineyard, one word you will run into early on is “Patriots.”

In a meeting room at the Oak Bluffs library the week after the Superbowl, librarian Nina Ferry wrote the word on the whiteboard, then repeated it slowly. Gradually, the rest of the room joined in.

“Pay, tree, uhts. Pay, tree, uhts. Pay, tree, uhts.”

The cluster of consonant sounds at the turn of the second syllable proved difficult to pronounce for many of the people seated around the table. They had all gathered for the library’s new weekly conversation circle, an opportunity for non-native English speakers, mostly people from Brazil, to practice speaking English in a supportive environment with the help of native speakers.

Ms. Ferry was a Rotary Scholar and lived in Fiji for more than two years after she graduated from college.

“To be placed in a country very far away, it really opened my eyes to what it was like to be a foreigner,” she said. “You are the odd person out. And seeking services, and even trying to find a library or go into any for-profit business, you don’t know what’s going on. It’s completely uncomfortable.”

The Tuesday night conversation circle is an early step in a larger initiative to make library services relevant to everyone in Oak Bluffs, not just English speakers. In April, the library will submit an application for a $15,000 grant from the state’s Library Services and Technology Act funding to add more resources for people who don’t speak English as a primary language.

The librarians hope to include English-speaking Oak Bluffs residents in the cultural exchange as well. English speakers are encouraged to come join in on Tuesday nights.

“Our primary goal with the conversation circle is to build bridges and increase cultural understanding between Island communities,” said Ms. Ferry.

Usually, eight to 10 people attend the conversation circle. Since the beginning of the year, with Ms. Ferry’s informal lesson plans, the group has worked on reading magazine articles, describing the weather (“What’s sleet?”), answering questions such as “How has your day been?” and the looking at the ubiquitous, English quasi-word “gonna.”

But the conversation has a way of meandering quickly away from the basic phrases. A discussion of how to say “I’m tired,” for example, leads to more details: “I have a son at home and he’s eight years old, so every day I’m tired.” Slowly, detail by detail, word by word, the participants get to know one another.

A table in the corner is always full of snacks ranging from goldfish crackers to pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread.

Luciano Henrique and Ivonete de Sousa are both from Brazil. He’s from São Paulo and she’s from Paraná. They have come to most of the conversation circles since the program began in January. They moved to the Island about a year ago and haven’t yet been able to get into the free English classes offered at the high school through the Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program.

Mr. Henrique, who also speaks Spanish, told the Gazette that it is very difficult to navigate life on the Island without speaking English. Without anyone to translate, phone conversations have been especially challenging. In person, he often relies on mime and gesture.

Through an interpreter, he described an experience taking his car to get fixed and not being able to understand the mechanic when they called to say the car was ready. He says the circle has helped with speaking and listening. 

It also offers a space to safely make mistakes without anyone getting frustrated or impatient.

Ms. Ferry and library director Allyson Malik have lots of ideas for expanding services beyond just the conversation circle. Some ideas come from Ms. Ferry’s research on programs in libraries in Boston while doing graduate work at Simmons College.

With the help of the grant, library staff plans to add more foreign language materials including foreign films, more resources for English learning, and more information about immigrants’ rights. They plan to host Portuguese language film screenings and bilingual story times, and will continue offering the online language learning tool, Mango Languages. With the help of a translator, they expect to eventually display all library promotion materials and flyers in both English and Portuguese.

According to the 2016 U.S. Census estimates, almost 20 per cent of Oak Bluffs residents are not native English speakers. And yet only about two per cent of the library’s collection is aimed at people who speak Portuguese or want to learn English.

“It would be great if [people who don’t speak English] could find something of value in what we’re doing,” said Ms. Malik. “And if they’re not, then there’s a fundamental structural issue.”

Oak Bluffs is currently leading the way in the effort to be inclusive to non-English speakers, but other libraries on the Island also offer Mango Languages. The Vineyard Haven library holds a family English night during the summer.

Finding out what other resources are necessary in Oak Bluffs will require some experimentation and a lot of listening. Starting this month, the library hired a Portuguese-English translator to be available for two hours each Saturday to help people work on language skills and navigate the library. The translator will also be able to translate personal materials.

“I think that as we see more and more people coming in just to have these one-on-one meetings with us, we might learn what it is they need us to do more often,” said Ms. Malik. “Our library needs to be a reflection of what the community is.”