Rhavi Carneiro’s Instagram feed is indistinguishable from the mass of influencers on the platform — except for his prodigious follower count of 1.1 million. Each post is an expertly curated expression of social media aesthetics: staring into the distance in a pasture at golden hour or a perfectly timed kiss on London Bridge with his girlfriend, Jess Dantas, who has a respectable 211,000 followers herself.
Carneiro is not your average influencer, though. He is an English teacher and an entrepreneur — the founder of Fluency Academy, a Brazilian startup that harnesses the attraction of social media to promise language proficiency in as few as seven months.
Interspersed across the wall of undersaturated photos in Carneiro’s feed is the occasional video. In one post from a few weeks ago, he lies shirtless in bed with a glittery filter. He’s not hawking some millennial brand of bed sheets though, he is translating Portuguese expressions into English. In this case, it’s “matar a saudade,” which he explains means “for old times’ sake,” while running his fingers through his perfectly coiffed hair. Idioms have never been so sensual.
Influencers are eating the world. From the chart-topping tunes to recipe tutorials, social media stars are wielding their massive audiences to take over industry after industry. Carneiro represents a new trend in the wave: language learning. In his home country of Brazil, he is part of a cadre of personalities that teach English to Portuguese speakers through YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, each boasting hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of followers.
What sets Carneiro apart from other influencers is his business acumen. His two selves, social media star and budding edtech tycoon, are indistinguishable. For Carneiro, influencers are the future of education, which is why each course at Fluency Academy is led by a social media teachfluencer like himself.
In Carneiro’s mind, what gave his instructors huge followings on the platform is also what makes them great teachers. “They’re extremely empathetic, and they’re extremely charismatic,” he told Rest of World. “They know how to teach people, but they also know how to seduce people — in a nice way.”
His theory seems to be paying off. In just a few years, Fluency Academy has taught around 70,000 students, each paying around $400. The company is projected to pull in up to $25 million in revenue this year, entirely bootstrapped — and it’s still only teaching courses for Portuguese speakers. The startup is currently fundraising to expand to the rest of Latin America later this year and then globally next year.
“It’s really easy to attract a person to your course when you have the person’s idol there promoting the product,” Carneiro said.
Carneiro was destined to be a performer, even if social media platforms were an unlikely stage. His father is a drummer, and his mother a composer who made soundtracks for children’s plays. “I’ve always been inside a theater,” he said.
He started studying English when he was seven years old. At 16, Carneiro moved to West Palm Beach, in Florida. He had confidence in his English before he lived in the U.S. but soon realized that he couldn’t understand a word that Americans were saying. He said that he often thought, “This is definitely not the English I learned.”
It was his first realization that English language instruction in Brazil was flawed. He had been learning from teachers who did not talk like native speakers, and most of his practice had been with classmates who were making the same mistakes that he was.
For developing countries like Brazil, English is often a path to the middle-class. It is no coincidence that edtech is one of the most predominant technology verticals out of Latin America, from Duolingo, founded by a Guatemalan, to Colombia’s Platzi. That only grew during Covid-19, with more people spending time online. Duolingo registered a 23% growth in new students in Brazil in the first two months of the pandemic.
Despite a growth in language-learning tools, only around 5% of Brazilians have some knowledge of English, with the country ranked 10 out of 19 in proficiency out of Latin American countries. In a recent survey, 50% of Brazilian middle and high school students said the biggest challenge to learning English was exposure to the language.
After two months of constant contact with English speakers in Florida, Carnerio finally began to feel like he could understand them. When he returned to Brazil, he got a job teaching at one of the country’s largest language academies — Wizard. He was still just 16 years old, and many of his students were middle-aged adults.
But Carneiro was naturally confident. “I just needed one hour to turn them into friends,” he told Rest of World, “and, from there, I could make them learn English.” This became his grand theory of teaching and the foundation for Fluency Academy — what Carneiro refers to as “proximity.”
Every school has its own mnemonics, flash cards, and psycho-linguistic theories on memorization. In the end though, language learning always comes back to the same necessity: hours and hours of contact. For that, students need to have the desire, and comfort, to engage. Carneiro believed that the major flaw in traditional schools, whether in-person or online, is that you don’t feel close to your teacher.
But Carneiro still didn’t know how to create that sense of proximity on a large scale. His real innovation started with a Facebook page called Inglês com Rhavi Carneiro. Back when the platform was still focused on longer videos, he began to post minute-long clips that taught idioms like “beat around the bush.” He had studied graphic design in college, so he was also able to add slick visuals to the videos. His follower count began to tick up as he figured out how to form a teacher-student relationship through technology and reach thousands of people. Still, he was just one person. “That’s when I realized — OK, so influencers.”
In 2019, Carneiro partnered up with an entrepreneur originally from New Zealand, named Finn Puklowski, to build Fluency Academy. They’re now both based out of Curitiba, the capital of the southern state of Paraná (although, when Rest of World interviewed Carneiro in May, he took the call from his newly bought beach house in the surfing destination of Praia do Rosa).
Fluency Academy would be an online school, where students would enroll in a course that included a meticulously designed progression of video lessons, flash cards, podcasts, and conversation sessions. It would be supported by hundreds of designers and back-end teachers (i.e., noninfluencers), who could help out with student questions. Fluency Academy doesn’t teach only English but six other languages, including Japanese and Mandarin, all to Portuguese speakers.
Tiago Rocha seemed destined to be part of the population without proper access to an English-language education. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood of Feira de Santana, a mid-sized city in the state of Bahia. Like Carneiro, he had the desire to learn English from a young age but lacked the resources — his mother was a maid, and his father a bricklayer. He would teach himself from any books and audio tapes he could get his hands on.
He knew his strengths: English and creativity. His friend told him that he should start a social media page combining both. So, he opened an Instagram account with short posts that would talk about black representativity, culture, and the occasional grammar rule, all with a healthy dose of deboche — light-hearted mockery. To this day, he combines his training in storytelling with social media techniques, carefully designing everything down to the color palettes, to drive new viewers. Rocha started out in February 2020. He now has over 15,000 followers on Instagram and is known as Teacher Tiago.
“They get inspired when they listen to my story and the background I came from — for somebody that learned English by myself with no material,” Rocha told Rest of World. “I understand how frustrating it is at times, how lost you feel when you start studying another language.”
Rebecca Jackson, known more commonly by her social media handle Minha Professora Gringa (My Gringa Teacher), got to teachfluencing through the opposite route. She grew up in upstate New York and trained as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher. In 2014, she took a trip to Brazil, helping out at a school in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, while learning Portuguese herself.
The experience gave her insight into what her students were going through — the constant failure, the humiliation of mistakes, and the feeling of stagnation. “They feel so traumatized by the process of English,” she told Rest of World. “They don’t want to look like an idiot.”
In 2018, when Jackson was teaching at an adult night school, she set up a Facebook page for her students. She decided to make a video about one of her biggest challenges in Portuguese, which is gendered words. It was the third video she ever posted. She uploaded it on a Friday night, and 500 people watched it before she went to bed. Jackson said that, when she woke up, her phone had died because of the amount of notifications she was receiving. The video had racked up a million views overnight. “There are people who design [virality] to happen,” she told Rest of World. “With me, it just kind of happened.”
Three years later, Jackson has almost 335,000 followers on Instagram and 327,000 subscribers on YouTube. Her main stage, though, is TikTok, where she commands an audience of 1 million. Her clips take advantage of TikTok’s full suite of video and sound, using memes and references to joke about Brazilian culture and the idiosyncrasies of language.
She may have been racking up millions of views, but, unlike her days in the classroom, Jackson could not tailor her lessons to individual students. Her strategy was too one-sided. “It’s not really scalable,” she said.
Enter Fluency Academy. Carneiro scrolled through social media and saw a score of Teacher Tiagos and Minha Professora Gringas out there — all teaching English to Portuguese speakers. From SmallAdvantages with Gavin Roy (2.3 million subscribers on YouTube) to Ask Jackie with Jackie Katsis (754,000 subscribers), each of them had the follower counts and charisma but lacked the infrastructure and resources to properly teach tens of thousands of students.
Carneiro and Puklowski designed the platform around them. The influencers are what separates Fluency Academy from other language schools. The refined user interface and extensive ecosystem of products is window dressing for a platform that isn’t revolutionary, compared to other full-service language academies, at least in its pedagogical approach. Instead, the main offering for students is getting to choose their favorite teachers.
How the academy benefits from bringing top influencers on to its platform is clear. It drives millions of people to free enrollment events that it hosts every few months. Each influencer also “runs” their own course, although courses typically feature around five to seven teachers. There’s a direct pipeline from social media accounts and free Fluency videos and events to the paid courses. “It’s this thing that feeds itself, like this big funnel,” said Carneiro.
For established influencers like Rebecca Jackson and Gavin Roy, the advantage of coming to Fluency Academy might not seem obvious, until you break down the numbers.
Jackson said that, despite her follower count, she makes only around $100 a month from YouTube, mostly because it pays less for views from Brazil. On her main platform, TikTok, she’s part of the Creator Fund program but has made only around $70. Fluency Academy represents one of her central revenue streams, although she contractually could not share the amount with Rest of World. She currently makes videos that are available only to users for free on the platform, but Carneiro said that Fluency is designing a full paid course built around her.
Puklowski, the academy’s co-founder, compared their early partnership with Gavin Roy of SmallAdvantages to “collab houses,” where popular influencers make content together to increase their reach. Carneiro said that Roy and Katsis have made tens of thousands of dollars by helping out with the free-enrollment events and becoming affiliates in Fluency Academy courses.
Fluency Academy doesn’t bring on just famous influencers but also ones with smaller audiences and even people it thinks could someday have huge followings. Many of its teachers have social media accounts with just a few hundred followers or even private profiles. It hires scouts to go out and try to find people who have the makings of social media stardom — Carneiro referred to it as a “machine of creating influencers from scratch.” Rest of World learned that smaller influencers are often paid less than $25 by Fluency Academy for short videos that go out to users as free content.
There are some influencers who are caught somewhere in the middle — too enterprising to start on the ground floor but too small to bring in the big bucks from Fluency. Tiago Rocha, the Brazilian teachfluencer, fell into that liminal zone. When Rocha was starting out, Carneiro approached him to make videos for the platform. Rocha eagerly accepted. “He had 1 million followers, and I wanted people to see me,” he said.
But Rocha had bigger ambitions — he wanted to build his own language-learning platform, similar to Carneiro’s. The promise of a future competitor was too much for Fluency Academy. “When they saw my launch page and the quality of my work, they said, ‘We cannot work with you anymore,’” Rocha told Rest of World. “I said, ‘It makes no sense: you have one million followers, and I’m just starting out.’”
Carneiro said Rocha’s appeal did not work — Carneiro cut the partnership short. Rocha said he has no hard feelings though. It was Fluency Academy that helped him get his start, after all. Still, with his wry videos and colorful production, he thought he had what it took to stand out in the sea of hashtags and emojis.
“You have to bring something new to the table,” Rocha told Rest of World. “You have to be authentic.”
Today, Rocha’s platform, Inglês em Ação, has its first cohorts. The new online school is still tiny, compared to Fluency Academy — Rocha has only 140 students and a staff of six, compared to Fluency Academy’s 70,000 paying students and staff of hundreds — but he is optimistic that it will grow. With Brazil’s low level of English proficiency and vast appetite to learn, the market is nearly limitless.
Rocha might find himself in Carneiro’s shoes soon, as the growing pool of influencers threatens to start their own teaching operations. Until now, Fluency Academy’s strategy has been a massive campaign of mergers and acquisitions to scoop up the best talent and train the next generation, but, in a country like Brazil, there will be other Rochas who decide to go on their own. Becoming a successful influencer, after all, starts with a singular, determined personality.