Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism

Legendary animator Chuck Jones is said to have offered budding young artists this piece of advice, in one form or another:

We all have at least 10,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.

Chuck apparently didn’t make up this quote; although the exact number varies, the advice is frequently heard in interviews with any Chouinard or CalArts graduate. This little gem has been going around for a while.

I like this idea. It’s not that you’re lacking a skill, it’s that you just need to purge all those crappy drawings inside. It’s a whole lot easier to just get rid of junk than to build something entirely new from scratch, isn’t it? You can almost imagine a “crappy drawing” count somewhere going down over time, as those amateur doodles run out and a real artist bursts forth.

This is an idea that learners of Chinese could use. It’s not that you need to “learn tones,” it’s that you have 10,000 bad tones inside you that need to get out before you can hope to be fluent. It’s a veritable exorcism of that “crazy-tones laowai accent.”

Accent Exorcism

And until you expel those bad tones, they torture you a bit. It’s not enough to lock yourself up in a room and recite your textbook. Oh no, you have to get out there and talk to real people and screw up, and get those blank stares and giggles. And that does burn a little.

Until you get all those bad tones out, you’re in a sort of tone purgatory. In case you’re not familiar, purgatory is a state in which in imperfect soul is cleansed before it can continue on to heaven. Over the ages, it has frequently been depicted as purifying flames.

Every bad tone is an accent impurity, but all you can do is exorcise them slowly, one by one, by practicing your Chinese. Getting tones wrong is frustrating, and can feel like torture at times, but heaven awaits… (Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)

Tone Purgatory

So you may be in tone purgatory, but so what? You can conduct the accent exorcism on your own. You know what to expect. All you have to do is get out there and start talking.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)”


  2. Love the last picture!

  3. Blazes Boylan Says: November 18, 2010 at 11:08 am

    It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a foreigner to correctly use tone sandhi.

    ~Peter’s Epistle to the Chengduvians

  4. Quotes, funny pictures, interesting ideas. What a great blog post!

  5. Funny and interesting post. Good job John:)

  6. […] Chinese. And almost no roundup of Chinese Blogs would be complete without Sinosplice. John Padsen introduces an interesting concept for getting rid of bad tones. Everyone has thousands of bad tones in their system that they have to […]

  7. What??? Everyone didn’t think the first caption was a riot??? YOU are too jaded! What a fine point to get the idea across. I vote for Chinese tone comedian of the year award!

  8. […] Make Mistakes. I wrote a post on the importance of making mistakes called Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism. […]

  9. […] day, I happened upon an article called “Tone Purgatory and Accent Exorcism.” Inside, the article housed the framework for a new mental model that has been crucial to my […]

  10. […] and not something scary. If the end goal is spoken fluency, you have to start practicing speaking. Exorcise those demons of bad […]

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