Kendal Knetemann had a charmed childhood growing up in Nicaragua. She went on play dates with her classmates, visited Playa Pochomil with her family, and swam competitively with Managua’s “Tiburones” swim team at Nejapa Country Club.
Though her parents were U.S. expats—her father worked for a U.S. oil company—Knetemann was raised like a Nicaraguan. She spoke only Spanish at home, ate gallo pinto for breakfast, went to school at Colegio Teresiano and looked forward to celebrating the Purisima with her family every December.
“I lived a Nicaraguan life; I wore chancletas (flip flops) and cute dresses. All my friends were Nicaraguans,” Knetemann remembers.
But that life came to a screeching halt in September 1978, less than four months before her 14th birthday. Knetemann returned home from swimming practice one afternoon to find her parents waiting for her with the unexpected news that she had to pack her bags and leave Nicaragua on the next flight. Her mom told her she was being sent to California alone to live with her aunt, whom she’d never met. There wasn’t time to explain. Managua had become too dangerous.
“I never got to say goodbye to anyone. It was really hard,” Knetemann remembers. “I really felt alone in the world.”
Knetemann arrived in the United States feeling like a refugee. She was confused by her new surroundings and couldn’t speak enough basic English to communicate with her aunt. When she finally started to cobble words together, it was with the confused word ordering of Spanish sentence structure imposed on English. Knetemann’s aunt, who worked with children with learning disabilities, mistook Knetemann’s Yoda-speak for dyslexia.
A year later, Knetemann’s parents and siblings fled Nicaragua and joined her in California, just as the revolutionaries took control of capital. “They were on the last flight out of Managua in July, 1979,” she says. “The only thing my mother took with her were some family photos; they lost everything else.”
The family was reunited, but Knetemann still felt displaced. Her language limitations made her an outcast in high school. At lunch she sat with a lonely Dutch exchange student who had similar problems blending. The two became fast friends, and eventually got married.
“I had no friends, he had no friends and we were both total nerds,” Knetemann says with a laugh. “We didn’t wear the same clothes as the other kids in school and we both had limited English. We became best friends.”
After college, Knetemann, a naturally kindly and energetic woman, became a language teacher in Colorado. She spent the better part of the next 27 years teaching young Latino immigrants how to speak English.
“I want to help people with language; I don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt,” she says.
Now Knetemann wants to take her passion for language education to a global audience. Five months ago, Knetemann officially launched her new website, www.lingohut.com, a free site that aims to teach people basic conversational language skills in English, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese. The site is offered in 52 languages, everything from Afrikaans to Welsh.
As a result of its multilingual presentation, Knetemann says her site is already seeing traffic by the tens of thousands from countries as far flung as Serbia, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Brazil and Colombia, to name a few. Knetemann says even her 24-year-old daughter Brittany, who just moved to Amsterdam, is using the site to learn some basic Dutch.
The goal of the site is not fluency, but to teach people basic vocabulary and situational language skills so they can start ordering in restaurants, negotiating in the market, and navigate any other number of daily situations that will help them to start assimilating.
“We are not teaching the fundamentals of language, but basic conversational skills and word pronunciations,” Knetemann says. “Situational language skills are what I needed when I first came to the United States—it’s how you begin to learn a language.”
Conversation, Knetemann says, is the most important element of learning a second or third language. Mechanics and verb conjugations are also important, but the first goal is to get people speaking, confident and interested in communicating in another language—the nuts and bolts come later.
Lingohut has been Knetemann’s labor of love since 2005. She says it has taken countless hours of working with her husband, an IT guy who built the website’s platform, and a professional translation service in New York to translate eight sets of language classes into 52 languages. The courses are complete with flash cards, simple word games, audio pronunciations and a unique language lab feature that lets students record their voice and listen back to their own pronunciations.
“Anyone who uses it can get a leg-up,” she says.
Still a Nicaraguan at heart
Knetemann hasn’t been back to Nicaragua since the day her parents took her to the airport in 1978. The house her family built on Carretera Vieja a León was confiscated by a Sandinista official in the 1980s, but was later struck by lightning and abandoned. Today it sits uninhabited in the weeds, according to family friends who went to check on the old Knetemann place recently.
Knetemann says she’s curious to visit Nicaragua again, but afraid of what she might find.
“My mom went back to visit 15 years after the war, and was devastated,” Knetemann says. “I have so many beautiful memories of Nicaragua; if I go back I will shatter all those memories.”
Still, thanks to Facebook, Knetemann has started to reconnect with some of her childhood friends from Nicaragua—all of whom, she says, “scattered across the world in 1979.”
Reencountering her old swim team mates and primary school friends has got Knetemann thinking again about the halcyon days of her childhood, and the enchanting country from her past. “Now that my children are grown, I want to go back,” she says.
In the meantime, she says, the lessons she learned from Nicaragua continue to inspire her work 35 years on.
“In Nicaragua, I learned compassion and kindness,” Knetemann says. “I brought that with me, and it inspired me to build this website to help others.”