Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Learning Chinese with StarCraft 2

If you enjoy playing computer games, why don’t enjoy them in Chinese? I’ve played a lot of StarCraft 2 in Chinese and even if I don’t play any longer, I still watch several matches online each week, with live commentary in Chinese. I have learnt and still learn tons of Chinese from this and enjoy every minute. As the title implies, this article is about playing or watching StarCraft in Chinese and improve your Chinese at the same time.

Note: This article is not only for those of you who like StarCraft. In fact, you can read the entire article as inspiration and as an example of how you can turn a hobby into a learning opportunity. You can also read it as a personal insight into how I learn Chinese.

See below for the video.

Among other things, I will talk about:

  1. How to install StarCraft 2 in Chinese
  2. What you get (with video examples)
  3. How to get started
  4. Watching games online with Chinese commentary
  5. Word list with vocabulary in English along with Simplified and Traditional Chinese

As frequent readers will remember, I have already written an article about playing computer games in Chinese, in which I summarised the benefits as follows:

  • It’s fun – I put this at the top because it’s the most important factor. Learning languages should be fun and this makes computer games an excellent way of learning. Naturally, the benefits will vary according to what kind of game we’re talking about, but reviewing vocabulary has never been this fun (some in-game words occur very frequently).
  • It’s instrumental – When playing computer games in a foreign language, we don’t simply learn because we want to learn, we have another purpose: we want to beat the game (or our opponents). This means that we need to use the language to succeed and reach the next level, a great motivational boost.
  • It’s social – Depending on what games you play (preferably some major game like StarCraft or Diablo), you will find that many native speakers are hugely interested in these games as well. This is an opportunity to interact with other people, not only while playing the game, but also elsewhere online and in real life.
  • It’s interesting – Playing a game, we typically want to know more about it or how to improve our game play. Popular games like StarCraft and Diablo spawn thousands of websites dedicated to the games, some of which will be in Chinese. This gives you lots of reading material which you are truly interested in reading. Participating in online discussions might require a relatively advanced level, but reading is easier.
  • It’s about more than gaming – Some people might wonder if it’s really useful to know how to say Dark Templar, Infestor, Demon Hunter or Witch Doctor in Chinese, but this question misses the point. These words might be commonly occurring in these games, but the language use is much richer than that. These are the words uninitiated people will notice, but the bulk of language use is still normal.

How to install StarCraft 2 in Chinese

Update: The below information about how to play the game in Chinese is now obsolete. It’s now much easier to change language, something you can now do from within your account. Pleas check the comments by Murray and Lucas for more details.

If you live in Asia where the Chinese version is the norm, you can skip this section. For the rest of us, installing StarCraft in Chinese ought to be relatively simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. This is because Blizzard has (for some reason) decided that language packs are limited to specific regions, so someone living in Europe (like me) and who buys the game, cannot just download the Chinese version. This is unforgivable and I can see no reason why it’s like this.

It used to be possible to change the entire game into Chinese, but if you’re not prepared to use a real Chinese or Taiwanese client and play on their servers (or you could ignore multiplayer and just play campaign mode), you can only convert the voice packs. This is still pretty good, because there are lots of talking going on in this game. There are many ways of doing this, but I used this. However, if you do this, some cool things I bring up below will not be relevant. I’m very sorry for this, but blame Blizzard, not me!

What you get

In case you haven’t noticed, Blizzard is a company that really doesn’t skimp on details. The translated versions of the game aren’t slipshod products to sell a few more copies of the game, they are actually good. Not only do they contain all dialogues and sounds rewritten and rerecorded in the specific language, but all in-game text is also changed. This includes graphics in movie sequences and even details on the maps!

This game contains huge amounts of dialogue

In between missions (and sometimes in them), Starcraft 2 features long dialogues and interaction with the characters in the story. This audio can be replayed again and again (which is excellent for language practice). Even better, you can turn on subtitles and read what the characters are saying if you’re listening ability is not up to the task! As if this weren’t enough, you can pause the game at any time and spend as much time as you like reading the dialogue.

Playing through the game on any difficulty will expose you to huge volumes of Chinese. If you play on a very easy difficulty setting, you will mostly have dialogues and story-related sequences, which might be very hard for beginner and intermediate Chinese learners. However, it’s probably still enjoyable, especially if you’ve played the campaign in English before. The language used is quite good and not just hastily translated. Voice actors are competent and leave little room for complaining (although there are exceptions; I hate the Chinese Kerrigan).

Here’s an example of what a cut scene looks (and sounds) like. Note that the text on the ground is also in Chinese:

Here is a normal dialogue, note the subtitles (there are hours and hours of these):

Gampeplay and multiplayer

One of the great advantages of playing RTS (real-time strategy) games in Chinese is the huge number of times you will hear the same things. Each unit has a respectable number of things to say when you click on them and order them about, so playing through a campaign or playing online, you’ll hear these words and phrases a lot. For instance, here’s what the marines say when you click on them.

Apart from this, true to tradition, Blizzard has expanded the “annoyed unit” dialogues. This means that if you click the same unit a lot, it will start saying entertaining things. In Starcraft 2, these dialogues are quite long and are occasionally quite good. Here’s an example of what the Banshee says in the Taiwanese version of the game:

How to get started

Starting to play and watch StarCraft in Chinese isn’t easy and parts of it would have been difficult for native speakers as well, even though they would get used to it much quicker. Here’s what I did and recommend other people doing as well:

  1. Install the game
  2. Play through the campaign on casual or easy
  3. Check vocabulary only if you want to (see word list below)
  4. Start watching commented matches (again, see the word list)
  5. Discuss StarCraft in Chinese, either online or with native geeks

You might also want to read the article about StarCraft 2 on Wikipedia (in Chinese), not to learn more about the game, but because it contains some key vocabulary if you want to be able to follow dialogues in the story.

Watching StarCraft matches online

An even better way of learning Chinese from StarCraft is watching commented games online with live commentary in Chinese. I realise that the threshold is quite high, but I still want to share my experience. Before you try this, you need some basic understanding of the game and I also suggest you watch some matches in English first, otherwise this will be very, very hard to understand.

The first time I watched a commented match in Chinese, I understood almost nothing. I mean literally below 10%. This isn’t because I suck, but rather because this is a very narrow and specialised area with some specific terms not used anywhere else. If I show a commented match in English to a native speaker with no exposure to computer games, they will understand almost nothing. Thus, we need vocabulary to survive through a StarCraft match in Chinese. This includes unit names, names of common map features, tactics, strategy and much more. The point is, don’t feel disappointed if you can’t understand anything at first, that’s only natural.

The benefits of watching broadcasts don’t end with geeky discussions about tactics, however. Usually, there are more than one person commenting, especially for bigger events or TV-shows. I usually watch the Taiwanese professional league, and they always have one host and one expert commentator. This means that the host doesn’t really understand the game (which is of help to new viewers) and continuously asks questions that the expert can answer. Apart from actually discussing the current match, however, they also banter, chat and discuss other things, so watching broadcasts isn’t really limited to StarCraft. I think over half of what is said during a broadcast is actually about other things than the game.

Here are two examples of what it looks like:

Taiwanese commentary on a match between Taiwan and the Mainland in Asia StarCraft 2 Invitational Tournament.

Mainland commentary on a match from GSL (Korea). NeoTV is quite good, but most clips are on YouKu.

Websites and channels to check out if you like StarCraft 2, sorted in the order I think they are good or useful:

Vocabulary lists

These lists have taken me a while to compile. They aren’t meant to be complete in any way, but I hope that they will help other people to enjoy StarCraft and learn Chinese at the same time. All vocabulary is tagged according to race, function, etc. There are also tags for words which doesn’t appear in the game itself, but which are essential if you want to make sense of live commentary in Chinese.

If you feel that something is missing or if you find a mistake, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. In other words, I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve written is correct (especially the simplified Chinese). I’ll keep these lists updated and they are also available for Anki, my favourite spaced repetition program. Download the deck here. If you don’t use Anki 2, you can use one of the following:

Chinese StarCraft 2 vocabulary in tab-delimited .csv (this file is using UTF-8, so if your program displays only weird symbols, you need to change the character encoding to UTF-8)
Chinese StarCraft 2 vocabulary in .anki format (old Anki 1 format, for Anki 2, use this link)

A note on differences between Mainland and Taiwanese versions of the game

The game has actually been translated twice, so it’s not just a matter of using different character sets. The voice acting has also been made separately for the two versions. However, most of the vocabulary is the same (or very similar). In the vocabulary list, I have provided both Mainland and Taiwanese versions of the words. This might be slightly inaccurate in some cases where I’m not sure about exactly what something is called in the Mainland version. Please let me know if you find any mistakes!

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  1. This is just way too epic. If only I had time to play more games. I’ll definitely be watching some of those matches.

    I really like the effort that Blizzard takes into the details of the games.

  2. Chi says:

    >>It’s also possible to acquire a native Chinese client and play either on the Chinese or Taiwanese servers.

    How can we do this?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I haven’t done this myself, I just know that some professional players in other parts of the world are able to have multiple accounts and play on e.g. Kr/Tw servers.

      1. Tor says:

        You just go to battle.net and download the Starcraft 2 client from whatever region you want to play in. Easy.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          It’s easy to download the client. There are two problems, though. First, you have to buy an account valid in the region which the client is used, which isn’t very easy. Second, you can only play in that region, so you can’t use your Chinese version of StarCraft and play with your American or European friends. Unless you use unofficial patches, of course.

  3. Zero says:

    Thanks so much for this. As an aspiring chinese language learner and starcraft fan this is incredibly helpful, and seems like a great way to practice. 多谢!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great! Don’t forget to share if you find something cool. Also, feel free to suggest things I should add to the word list, especially relating to casting or strategy talk.

  4. Seymour Brown says:

    Am I doing something wrong with Anki Starcraft 2 Chinese Vocabulary? I expected to see Chinese on front, and English on back. I get Simplified on front and Traditional on back.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Chinese is too complex to handle with only front/back most of the time, so I (and most other learners I know) used the Pinyin Toolkit in the old Anki and Chinese support in the new version. These add new fields and allows you to enter both traditional, simplified, pronunciation and some other things. Everything is there and you can display it if you install Chinese support for Anki. Thus, the problem isn’t with the deck but with the way you display it.

  5. Jake says:

    I am learning Chinese because my wife is from Taiwan. I am a gamer, but I am struggling with the language, even though I live with her and her family in Taiwan. It never occurred to me to use games like this to help me learn the language! Such a great idea! I, however, do not play Starcraft 2, nor do I have the money to play it (you pay monthly, right?). I do, however, play League of Legends. I don’t know if it is possible to learn it on the same scale as Starcraft, but what do you think? It’s big in Asia as well; I see more people playing League in gaming cafes than Starcraft. I’ve always been afraid to play in those cafes because of the language barrier. Maybe I should, though. What do you guys think?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      League of Legends is definitely more popular here than Starcraft is, so if nothing else, it will give you something interesting to talk about with people (good for motivation). I have never played the game and don’t know how much Chinese it contains, but there should be plenty of material related to the game in Chinese, including commented matches, information articles, discussion threads and so on. The threshold might be a bit high, but if you can get over it, learning this way is really good.

  6. Omi says:

    This is amazing work! I love starcraft and I’ve been trying to understand the matches in Chinese. I tried importing your deck with chinese support in anki2 but I can’t seem to get it to autogenerate pinyin for the deck. Does the deck need to be modified somehow? How can I see pinyin in the deck?

  7. Xavier says:

    Thank you bro, I really appreciate this!

  8. Stephen says:

    Dumb question but…where can I buy the game?

    Most of the English-language shops explicitly say their version cannot ever be used on chinese servers. While I’m more interested in the single-player campaigns (at least at first), it doesn’t make sense to buy a version I know I can’t ever use online here.

    And the chinese language sites are very confusing, seem geared only to online play and often want you to download some malware-looking games portal or downloader first.
    battlenet.com.cn appears to be the closest thing to an official site, but only lets me download a 3MB client then directs me to create an account on us.battle.net (note; US site).

    I would never do this, but I’ve even heard that finding a bittorrent of the chinese version is a PITA. 烦死我了

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I haven’t played in over two years, but it used to be the case that once you had a Battle.net account, you could just download and install the Chinese version of the game (not super hard to find, even only relying on English sites). In order to play on Chinese servers, you needed to get a Chinese account, which is much harder and something I’ve never done. However, I think they have changed the language settings now so you don’t need to download files manually, i.e. you should be able to switch to Chinese once you have the game. You will still not be able to play on Chinese servers, but the game will be in Chinese. Don’t take my word on this, though, something might have changed since last time I did this!

      1. Stephen Holtom says:

        Thanks appreciate the reply. I’ll keep trying on battle.net.cn and will update here if it works.

  9. Murray says:

    As of 2017 April 23, you can simply change your language settings in-game (then relaunch the client and download 6 gigs of audio and visual data). The author is spot-on regarding the detail Blizzard puts into the game. This is a great learning tool!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s great! It used to be sooo complicated to get this to work.

  10. Stephan says:

    Could you please update the article with the comments indicating it CAN be played in any language now? The article isn’t as useful when one doesn’t know when it was written and therefore how relevant it is. I used up a bit of time independently researching instead of first reading ALL the comments.

    In this case, it would help to have the article updated. Also, there is a free trial which you could mention as a way to test the waters. (I’m not affiliated with Blizzard or any gaming places)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Sure! Since you have tried this recently, would you perhaps be willing to give me some more information? Can you switch language within the client? Or do you still need to download it in another language, only that’s much easier than it used to be? I haven’t played the game in a while, so more info would be very helpful, thanks!

      1. Lucas says:

        You can now change game-specific options such as both the displayed and the spoken language from within the battlenet client. The battlenet client will then automatically download all data required to perform the language switch. I’ve done it and I am now playing Starcraft 2 in Chinese. I have also found strategy related articles on NeoTV, which actually contain a lot of useful, not so difficult language. The Starcraft and strategy-game related terms are of course difficult, but with the help of your vocab list and a pop-up browser dictionary also no problem, since a lot can be inferred from context if you are familiar with Starcraft 2.

        Thanks for providing such a specific article! The target audience may not be huge, but for people like me who love both Chinese and Starcraft 2, the article and the vocab list provide insane value!

  11. NinKenDo says:

    Does anybody know what font is needed, and how to link it, to run the TC version under Wine? I just get boxes for characters, and I’ve linked all the default TC fonts.

  12. Angus Macrae says:


    I’m keen to study this vocabulary as I’m a big fan of SC2 and an intermediate-advanced learner of Mandarin. But when I click on the link to the Anki deck I get “This shared item is no longer available”. Any chance you could update the link? Would be much appreciated.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Anki doesn’t make it easy to share and maintain decks. The CSV file is downloadable, though, and it shouldn’t be too hard to make it work in Anki! I’ll add this to my list of things to have a look at, but it might take a while before I get to it.

  13. 陈振华 says:

    Just in case someone finds this years later, I took some time and updated the deck with audio, images, and bumped it to the new Anki format.

    Here’s the download: https://drive.google.com/file/d/10z4S5nApc7RwycnftWfA-LsYorUB7OsA/view?usp=sharing

    Please reach out at maxfieldchen@gmail.com if you found it useful! Would love to chat. 跟你的中文的学习,加油!

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