Thesis Proposal in China

Today I had to officially submit my masters thesis proposal to a panel of professors at East China Normal University. In Chinese, the verb for going through this process is 开题. When you propose your thesis topic, you have to give each professor on the panel a copy of your proposal, or 开题报告. Then you summarize what you’d like to do in your thesis, and ask the professors any questions, if you’d like. The professors ask you questions about the scope of your thesis, controlling certain variables, theoretical basis, how your thesis will differ from existing research, etc. If all goes well, they will give you a few recommendations, approve the topic, then sign some paperwork and it’s all over. (I wish I could compare the process to an American version, but I’ve only ever been a graduate student in China, so I can’t.)

My thesis proposal was approved. I still have to revise the scope of my experiment somewhat, but I’m going to be studying some of the problems that North Americans have with the tones of Mandarin Chinese as upper elementary level exchange students in China.

In preliminary research on my topic, the most relevant and interesting paper I came across was a research paper by Dr. Qinghai Chen, who is currently a professor at the University of Michigan. Dr. Chen’s doctoral dissertation was done at Brigham Young University in 2000, entitled “Analysis of Mandarin Tonal Errors in Connected Speech by English-Speaking American Adult Learners: A Study at and Above the Word Level.”

The part of the abstract that intrigues me most:

> Findings at and above the word level jointly led to a summary of tonal error patterns, a discussion of relevant learner factors, an acquisition order of tonal contrasts, a set of criteria for better tones, and pertinent pedagogical suggestions.

So far I have been unable to get a full copy of the dissertation. I have contacted Dr. Chen and am awaiting his reply, but I’m afraid he might be on vacation or something. If anyone has an electronic copy of this paper, I would greatly appreciate the help!

Update: I got several e-mails offering help in acquiring Dr. Chen’s doctoral dissertation, including one with a PDF copy of exactly what I’m looking for (and within 12 hours of publishing this post). You readers are awesome! Thank you.


John Pasden

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


  1. Wouldn’t it be easier just to buy a master’s degree? One guy I know paid about 10,000 RMB for his, I think. There’s a thesis topic right there: an analysis of the fake master’s degree market in China.

  2. 88,

    Hmmm, definitely easier. I always thought it would be hilarious to buy in China various fake degrees from American ivy league schools and frame and hang them on my walls.

  3. TONED OUT – I think a lot of tonal problems come from our typical study of second language by words mostly in isolation. My tones are usually pretty good in words that I have learned within phrases, but when I insert a ‘new’ word in a sentence, invariably I mumble thru the tone.

    It’s one of the ‘problems’ I see growing with Cpod’s pedagogy. There to me is too much growing focus on ‘words’ throughout. There seems to me less and less emphasis on lexis and other chunks. I think the proper tones come thru hearing and use of them within the proper prior/post tones of high-frequency associated words.

    IMO it’s impossible to ‘remember’ all those tones/words, there must be some natural generator that eventually generates them properly…if we study right.

  4. John,

    I went to the U of M! I will see if I can help you out. Hang tight!

  5. John,

    I was able to google Dr. Chen’s contact info at U of M. You could ask him yourself!

    You should also be able to google BYU’s Asian Studies Dept, they should keep a copy of dissertations on file. Your university’s librarian might be able to request a copy, as well.

    If those two options don’t work for you, please contact me; I know a prof in developmental psych who might be able to pull some strings.

    I did a lot of Second Language Acquisition work when I was in Ann Arbor! I would love to hear your conclusions… both out of academic curiosity, and because in 10 days I’m going to Hangzhou for a summer immersion program… so as a learner!

    Do you think your thesis will just be the data and analysis, or are you going to offer recommendations to teachers and learners? I don’t remember much myself about error analysis/error correction, except that as a teaching strategy, overt grammatical error correction is sometimes totally ignored by learners.

    Of course I was doing romance languages, so error correction in terms of tone was not a question. In terms of error correction in pronunciation, or just pronunciation instruction in general, my coordinator had it on very low priority. For her class, I wrote a little paper on learner attitudes re their own accents….

    Ah, memories.

    Anyway, let me know if contacting Dr. Chen or the AS dept at BYU doesn’t work…..

  6. 音弗丽娅 Says: June 22, 2007 at 5:22 am

    Wow, I took a class from Prof. Chen (陈青海) a couple of semesters ago (it was Business and Professional Chinese). Small world huh? He’s a good teacher, I think he did his Ph.D in education and linguistics? He’s a nice guy, I’m sure he will reply. If you really need it, I probably could get it from him for you. Anyway, well I’m not a linguistic student (I’m an engineer), but a grad student none-the-less, in the states essentially what you do is write a proposal which first gives some background information on why you want to do this, then what you have done to prove what you want to do is possible, and then what you proposal you will do for the next few years of your research. There’s a paper copy you hand to your committee a couple of weeks before the presentation and then you make a 15 minute long presentation and present it in front of your committee. They could either ask you questions during the presentation, or wait till afterwards. Then they make you leave the room so they can deliberate over whether if you should continue, and then if they agree that you should, they would let you in and sign the sheet. If they are not satisfied with your current progress, they could make you do some more work and submit another written paper.

  7. Well, if you have a library account with a university in the States (or know someone that will let you use their account) you can access Proquest through the school library which will allow you to pull up the abstract and purchase the pdf for $32.00.

    I know it’s $32.00 because I just looked it up for you. If you’re really in a hurry I can give you the info and you can go download it yourself, you just need US credit card.

  8. jpv206,

    I did contact Dr. Chen, and I have yet to hear back from him. It’s the summer, and I’m afraid he may be on vacation or something, so I figured while I’m waiting I’d try another angle.

  9. 音弗丽娅,

    Ha, small world indeed! Good to know he’s a good guy. I’m sure he’s on vacation or something and not just jealously guarding his research.

    Thanks also for filling me in on the American version of the 开题 process!

  10. Jay,

    I’d rather not have to pay $32, since I only want a copy of it for legitimate research purposes. It’s entirely in the spirit of academia, but the problem is that Chinese schools are shut out of the “free access to research papers” network that encompasses pretty much all universities in the States.

  11. John,

    I asked my developmental psych friend if she knew Dr. Chen, she didn’t. Maybe I was the only linguist she knew (roll eyes). Keep me posted… I will ask a librarian friend of mine what she can do. I will be in Shanghai in July, I might be able to hand you a copy in person….

    When I was in grad school, I REALLY needed to read what Rochement was saying about focus constructions, but I just could not get a copy of the book before my deadline… so I dropped out and became a high school Spanish teacher, a tragedy that has affected too many people (mainly my students!).

  12. jpv206,

    Actually, another reader already came through for me! (See the update to the original post above.) Thanks a lot for your help… I really appreciate the reader support.

  13. Sweet! Where the hell was the blogosphere when I needed a copy of Rochement?

  14. but the problem is that Chinese schools are shut out of the “free access to research papers” network that encompasses pretty much all universities in the States.

    Actually,have you checked the library of your school? They claim to have full text access to ProQuest thesis database.

    (Look for ProQuest学位论文全文数据库 — as far as I understand, CALIS is one of the “free paper” networks in China)

  15. I can confirm that Dr. Chen is a super nice guy, I took several classes of his, and I remember he went out of his way to help me with non-class related things.

    Good luck with the project, hopefully you won’t run into any of the problems my wife has told me about that happen at her university when people try to get arguing faculty members to approve their MA papers. It seems some people have their approval pushed back a year, and can do nothing but sit on their hands and wait.

  16. I’ve contacted with Dr. Qinghai Chen several years ago, asked him how can I get his dissertation. He told me that he finished his diss. on an old Mac, so electronic version is unavailable (even for himself).

    I finally got the scanned version from ProQuest till several weeks ago. You’re very lucky, you have lots of blog fans. ^_^

    And by the way, Sun (1998) is worth reading for your study. Good luck!

    Sun, S. H. (1998). The development of a lexical tone phonology in American adult learners of standard Mandarin Chinese. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

  17. 恭喜你获得硕士学位!

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