“Language Connects Us”: Mark Jones on the Magic of Learning a Second Language

Mark Jones grew up in Latin America (Chile and Argentina) in a bicultural and bilingual family. He is a lifelong student of literature, especially poetry. He teaches from a foundational belief that exposure to literature and languages can develop empathy and appreciation for the world. Prior to teaching high school Spanish at Mount Madonna School (MMS), Mark was an adjunct professor in the Spanish Language Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He engaged his students in a dynamic classroom that motivated them with a variety of hands-on activities to encourage discussion and self-motivated inquiry, while ensuring above all that everyone felt safe, supported and valued. And though he’s lived many places, he has come to feel most at home in Santa Cruz County, and is excited to return here to become part of the MMS community. He holds a Ph.D and M.A. in Latin literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a B.A. in English from Reed College. When he’s not teaching, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, mountain biking, reading and writing. Recently, social media coordinator Carly Wheelehan sat down with Jones to learn a little bit more about his teaching style and passion. 

What do you like most about teaching Spanish?

I love the energy of a classroom. I thought I’d go into academic research until I discovered that teaching is so much more fulfilling. Learning a language is challenging for everyone, whether a student is primarily interested in learning it to speak with family and friends, travel or to understand culture. For anyone with a modicum of curiosity, Spanish offers something. I’ve rarely come across a student who finds it easy. 

What languages do you speak?

English and Spanish, though I am always trying to challenge myself to more learning. I’ve learned some Russian and French. My current undertaking is Japanese. It isn’t easy!

How do students benefit from studying a second language?

Besides the practical benefits and career-building potential, I love the way learning a new language reflects back on your own native language, and the way it can shape your view of the world. There’s a connectedness, or something mysterious that connects all human language. It changes you to discover those connections. 

What’s your approach in the classroom?

I believe that students need to be able to feel comfortable in a language class, because it is imperative that they feel safe enough to make mistakes, to take risks. I try to create a class culture that sets students up for taking chances. I incorporate a lot of social and group work so students can practice their skills — and feel comfortable with failure. I also like to bring in outside sources to put the language in cultural context. We’ll be discussing Spanish music, art, news and literature. 

What are you reading right now? 

I am re-reading my favorite Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra. He calls his style “anti-poetry,” which makes me laugh. Parra is always getting to the heart of things, of the human way of being, with humor and plain language. I’m currently reading a newer translation by Liz Werner called “Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great.” 

Now I am curious – are you interested in translation?

Oh, yes! I’ve studied it deeply. It’s such an interesting field with so many working theories — some opposing each other, even. Translation is so much more than changing a piece word-for-word into another language. It’s an art form of its own that incorporates so many different styles of thought and expression. I’d love to explore some translation theory with my Spanish 4 class this year. I’ve found that students usually love being asked to translate a song to start. The added challenge of the meter and rhyme in a song is a fun introduction to translation theory.  

What else are you looking forward to about teaching at Mount Madonna School?

There’s simply a magic that happens when a person learns a new language. I can’t explain it, but that moment I see it happen in a student is a joy to witness.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 380 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believes a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.

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