ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It began out of frustration. Marvin Jones was in Costa Rica and tried communicating with the staff at the resort where he was staying. It wasn’t going well. They couldn’t understand each other.
Jones is a communicator, one of the more loquacious players on the Detroit Lions roster. He’s willing to converse with just about anyone -- as long as he can actually speak with them.
The failure to communicate led Jones to a journey that has lasted over a year, with increased intensity over the past six months. As he has been having the best year of his career on the field, off of it he has been just as focused on another passion: Spanish fluency.
“I was getting very mad,” Jones told ESPN recently. “There were some of the things they were saying I kind of understood, but didn’t know how to respond back to it.
“I said, ‘OK, this is crazy. I’m here for five days and I can’t even speak to the people.’ After that, I told my wife I have to go to Spain or something.”
That’s what Jones did. Just before training camp this season, Jones spent five days with an immersion class in Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain. When he first landed in Spain and went to the apartment he rented for a week, he could barely communicate.
Then, for five hours a day, Monday to Friday, he sat in classes and began understanding the nuances. Outside of class, most people he encountered spoke only Spanish, forcing him to pick up the language faster. The week started with him pointing to dishes to order food. By the time he left, he said he was having full conversations -- and vowing to visit again this offseason.
“I was looking up, and the best way of learning anything, pretty much, is immersion,” Jones said. “You immerse yourself in the culture, you immerse yourself to the point that’s all that you know and all that you’re around and all you hear. You can’t go back and speak your native language because nobody knows it.”
When Jones returned to the United States, he signed up for one-on-one Spanish classes on the website Italki as a way to keep up his studies. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Jones logs in for an hourlong class with Madrid-based Sacri Guijarro on Skype. Then Wednesdays and Thursdays, he does the same thing with Antonio Naharror in Barcelona.
It has been working. He completes most of his homework with his professors. While his teammates are sleeping or watching movies on road trips, Jones takes lessons he printed out and studies Spanish on the plane.
He changed the time in his phone to military and the settings on his phone so everything other than text messages comes across in Spanish. In wide receiver meetings and group text messages with his Lions teammates, he’ll often respond in Spanish with muy guay (which means cool) or vale (which means OK). He has also begun speaking in Spanish to his children, both to help him learn the language and also to teach his children a second language.
Jones says he’s about 40-50 percent fluent in Spanish now. He’s starting to think of answers in Spanish first when he converses in the language -- and sometimes even during English-based conversations -- which is usually a sign fluency is starting to take hold. After he becomes fluent in Spanish, he said he plans to move on to either French, because it has a similar origin to Spanish, or Mandarin, because of the value of speaking it in the business world.
As for Spanish, he decided to study with the dialect of Spain instead of Mexico or somewhere in Central America because that’s where the language originates.
Sometimes, he said, this bothers his wife because the two of them grew up around the Spanish spoken in Southern California, where some of the words are different from the Spanish spoken in Spain.
That experience as a child in Fontana, California, is what initially drew him to learning the language as his second language. And his trip to Spain in July invigorated him even more to become “a top-level native speaker” as a goal.
“That’s where it’s from,” Jones said. “Just the history, the people. It’s just different. That was my first time in Europe. I just loved everything about it. So much history, and the town is a very traditional town, and you get that feel.”
Jones said he will take another solo immersion trip -- this time to Madrid -- in 2018. And he’s planning to bring his entire family to Malaga this summer. He’s so dedicated to the idea, he wants to eventually buy a house in the city so his family can spend the summers there -- presumably once football is done.
Jones said he plans to get his children Spanish tutors once they go back to San Diego for the offseason. He’s adamant his children will become bilingual. He believes this will benefit them. He has seen the results in his own experiences, from learning about another culture to down the road reaching new people by being able to do interviews in Spanish as well as English.
“You just gain more knowledge,” Jones said. “And I want my kids, I don’t want my kids to be, it’s not bashing what we do in our systems here, but I don’t want them to be traditional in that aspect. I want them to have, their minds are going to be way more enhanced to be here, go to school here, do whatever, and then, boom, go to Spain and have their friends in Spain and go to summer school in Spain and have another culture and stuff like that.
“They are going to be way better off doing that. You know what I’m saying?”
So far, it has worked for him.