BRASILIA, Brazil — On a sticky December morning, Justine Arena explains to a student that appropriate small talk for an international conference call must not include “How is Mr. Obama?”
“No politics,” says the 36-year-old English teacher/entrepreneur in her client’s plush office in a wealthy neighborhood.
Her student is no sullen teen, but the Latin America director for a multinational automaker.
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“What about ‘how is your mother?’” asks the student.
“Nothing personal either," Arena says somewhat sternly. "Stick to the weather.”
She is one of a growing group of former Brazilian immigrants who have come home, drawn by economic growth and a job market the US and Europe can no longer offer. The 2010 census showed that from 2005 to 2010, 174,000 Brazilians returned to their home country, nearly twice as many as between 1995 and 2000.
Arena left for Boston in 1997, when Brazil was struggling with outrageous inflation and high unemployment. She spent almost 13 years there, graduating from Harvard and working in the corporate sphere. Then, in 2008, the recession hit. Arena’s boss and half her colleagues at the health care company where she was an account manager were laid off.
Suddenly the equation had changed: South America’s largest economy had been growing at a clip of 4 percent for most of the last decade. Millions of Brazilians moved into the middle class and unemployment fell to near-historic lows. Arena realized she was in the wrong country.
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“While all this is happening right in front of me, I would turn on the TV or read a newspaper and all I would see is how Brazil is booming,” she said over a recent lunch. “I said, my God, they need people who speak fluent English. I have all these skills I can use in Brazil — why not try that out?”
Six months later, Arena left for Brasilia. At upward of 110 reais ($53) per hour, her classes in business English aren’t cheap, especially in a country where the average monthly wage is 1,345 reais ($647). But her clients can afford it: They are mostly high-flying executives and lawyers, people who recognize that to compete internationally they need to be able to hold meetings in English.
Certainly Brazil needs more people like Arena. Only 5 percent of the population speaks English, ranking it last among the emerging BRIC powers in business English proficiency in a recent survey from Global English, scoring 2.95 out of 10.
“Not having a good command of English affects very negatively access to knowledge and to foreign markets,” says Antony Mueller, a professor of economics at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil.
Nearly a third of Brazil’s foreign direct investment (FDI) comes from English-speaking countries, and a lack of fluency can seriously hamper earning power. Research by the British Council shows a salary bump of between 20 and 50 percent for English speakers here.
“There is definitely a shortage of English speakers for many different fields of work such as IT, finance and oil and gas,” said Paula Boyce, English academic manager at the British Council in Brazil.
Much of Brazil’s small elite speaks excellent English: they may have gone to expensive international schools, or had private tutors throughout childhood. But English comprehension in the middle and lower classes remains poor.
That's changing, however. The swelling ranks of the middle class are increasingly willing to invest in language classes. Their spending on education rose from 8 to 10 percent of the household budget in 2010 to 15 to 17 percent in 2011.
And policy makers, mindful of the global economy as well as the influx of tourists expected for the World Cup in 2014 and the Rio 2016 Olympics, are taking notice: Rio made it mandatory for 6- to 10-year-olds to take English classes in 2010, adding 800 new teachers to the school network, while the federal government’s Science Without Borders program will send 100,000 Brazilian students to study at top universities abroad.
For Arena, the return of skilled workers like her to Brazil is an opportunity to teach people how to compete professionally.
“That also plays a big part in business, right? Learning … how to do business in different cultural contexts. So I coach clients also in how to make small talk, how to greet someone without getting too close.”
Working with such demanding clients requires flexibility. During a recent class, Arena’s lesson plans lay untouched. The student had an important conference call that evening on energy efficiency, and needed to learn how to talk about megajoules, and about achieving industry standards.
“If I didn’t have my corporate background, how would I know how to explain how to talk about tax incentives?” she said afterwards.
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Brazil’s once fast-growing economy has since slowed, but folks like Arena aren’t feeling it.
Since she started her business one year ago, Arena’s income has more than doubled, and she now has between 18 and 25 students, depending on their frequently hectic schedules. She has big plans for the future, including setting up an educational hub to bring core business knowledge to Brazil. But for now, she’s happy to be in Brazil, giving something back to her home country.
“I can really do here what I want to do, which is get everything I learned being in Boston for 13 years and share it with people here,” she says. “It’s the best thing that I’ve done.”