The Truth About Arabic

There’s no doubt that the people from the Middle East are very proud people. They are proud of their country, of their history and of their language. Except when speaking English… many of those I speak to wish to lose all traces of the  markers that identify them as being from the region. But that’s a story for another time.

Today we talk about Arabic itself. What are the differences between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the colloquial or vernacular varieties? Which is intrinsically the best Arabic to learn?

The answer seems to be…. all of them!

No matter which country the person comes from that I speak with. Whenever I tell them that I have an interest in Arabic and wish to study it in the future, they all tell me to learn their variety of Arabic; whether it is Saudi Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Jordanian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic… or take your pick from any of the Gulf states.

And why should I learn X variety? Well, because, as I’m reliably informed (irrespective of where that speaker comes from)… X Arabic is the closest to MSA. It’s amazing right… so many different varieties that are reported to be somewhat unintelligible to one another, and yet, they all the closest to MSA.

My question to you… as a learner of Arabic, and not as an L1 speaker of Arabic… which Arabic vernacular is actually the most practical for the learner to attempt to acquire, keeping in mind that the vast majority of Arabic materials reflect MSA and not the vernacular.


Author: Andrew

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  1. I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of Arabic, so I’m certainly not an expert by any means. However, here is what I know from languages in general.

    Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are all very similar, no doubt because they all come from Latin roots. I have studied all four in some capacity, and based on my experience, none is better than any other. Sure, one might argue that Italian is the best mid-way point between the other three, but in reality, knowledge of *ANY* makes understanding the others a lot easier.

    Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Czech – same thing. All very similar, due to shared Slavic roots. I have studied three of the four in varying capacities, and again find that none is necessarily better than the others. However, the argument for Russian is easy to make here due to the number of speakers in the world. But when it comes to similarities, consider this: As a fluent speaker of Russian, I can overhear a conversation in Polish and understand most of it. So the differences are even less significant for Slavic languages than for Latin.

    Turkish, Pashto, Uzbek, Kazakh, Uyghur – once again, very similar. I won’t say I’ve *studied* any, but I’ve spent significant time examining them and comparing phrases, and it’s clear to me that fluency in one, again, leads to understanding in most or all of the others. Here, the argument for Turkish is obvious, since the others are children of it.

    Which leads me to your question about Arabic. As a pragmatist (and cynic!), my first reaction is to say, “if the argument is which language most closely resembles MSA, why not skip the B.S. and just learn MSA?” But while that’s logical, it’s not practical, since nobody actually speaks MSA. Therefore, I would start by referring to the three language families above and suggest that it doesn’t matter which one you learn, because they’re probably all close enough to each other that you’ll understand. If I was choosing (and you can be sure that I will one day!) I would choose as my criteria: 1) which countries are most tourist-friendly, and 2) which dialects have the largest number of speakers.

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  2. @Randy
    All true.. The issue that no ‘real’ people speak MSA thing is what gets me the most. It seems to be that the majority of coursebook writers dare not go against the grain and present something that reflects a localised variety of Arabic. I will say that I have seen a reader for Moroccan Arabic, then there are of course the Pimsleur Egyptian and Levantine editions, and the FSI materials that cover Levantine and Saudi, but outside of these few things I haven’t really seen anything (I do recall an online Syrian course… possibly). I must admit that I haven’t looked too hard since taking Arabic seriously is a few years away for me as yet.

    In any case, I think it’s the MSA hurdle that would make Arabic a problem for those that can’t afford (financially, life commitments, etc) to go to an Arabic speaking region to immerse themselves in the vernacular… There’s always Skype I guess 😉

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  3. I did some research on this as I’m starting to learn Arabic for my job. I firstly bought the BBC course called Talk Arabic which uses the Syrian dialect. I then came across an Arabic distance learning course in Sweden (taught in English) which is free and they offer Syrian Arabic too so I’ve signed up for that. I read that Syria is the Hollywood of the Arab world and their Arabic dialect is widely understood throughout the Arab speaking world. As I need it for communicating with different countries in the Middle East, I decided this was the best choice for me.
    If anyone is interested, these Swedish Uni courses are free for citizens of EU countries and offer many language courses taught in English. You can find them listed here

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  4. Hi,

    I studied MSA and then Egyptian Arabic and then some other dialects. So I will try to answer your question based on my experience.

    1) If your purpose is to get around the Arab world, do business, watch / read the news… then MSA may be the only dialect you will ever need.

    2) HOWEVER, if you are looking to communicate on a very personal level (i.e. more than just business), and the person you speak to chooses not to speak to you in MSA (because after all it is an effort for Arabs to speak MSA instead of their own dialect), then you may not understand everything they say, but they will understand you.

    3) Of all the dialects, Egyptian is the mostly widely understood because of the great popularity of Egyptian movies and soap operas. A good knowledge of Egyptian arabic also allows you to understand quite a lot of lebanese, syrian and jordanian arabic.

    4) I highly recommend learning MSA because as it is the modern form of classical arabic, and therefore it is the basis for all other dialects. Once you feel comfortable in MSA, buy a phrasebook of egyptian arabic, morrocan arabic, iraqi arabic… and flip through the pages to understand the differences with MSA..

    good luck

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    • admin

      Thanks for the information Raphael — it’s great to have someone with your experience comment 🙂

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      • Arabic is one of the most diffucult lugnaage in the world, i am Turkish and i used to go how to read Quran-ı Kerim and i could not learn even the letters of Arabic but most of Arabic words are familiar to me by the way: you are such a beautiful girl, and i can understand why people pf West are so surprised when they see such a modern Arabic and Muslim girl

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