If you want to learn Arabic, you might already know that you’ll have to choose between Modern Standard Arabic and an Arabic dialect. Or, this may be news to you! Though Arabic is considered by many to be a very practical choice for language learners, there isn’t just one Arabic language. And you’ll need to choose carefully!
Types of Arabic: Modern Standard Arabic (also Modern Written Arabic, Literary Arabic, or Classical Arabic)
On one side, there’s Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is an official language in 25 countries. But there are also about 30 Arabic dialects spoken in various regions in North Africa and the Middle East.
And so, if you’re thinking about learning Arabic, you might have a few questions…
🤔 “Should I learn Modern Standard or a dialect?”
🤷🏻♀️ “Will people understand me anywhere if I learn Modern Standard?”
😵💫 “What Arabic dialect should I learn?”
We’ll give you all these answers and more!
What is Modern Standard Arabic?
The term “literary Arabic” typically refers to Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. There is also “Quranic Arabic,” or “Classical Arabic,” which is considered a liturgical language from which MSA evolved. You’ll find this version most commonly in literary works, in particular the Quran, the sacred text of Islam.
Modern Standard Arabic* (or Fusha*), as its name implies, is a modern and standardized version of Classical Arabic. This is the term linguists and other language specialists tend to prefer. Some people call it Modern Written Arabic or formal standard Arabic. In non-linguistic circles, the generic term “literary Arabic” is also popular, as opposed to “colloquial Arabic.”
This variant is used universally in written contexts. That includes the media and other relatively formal contexts such as universities, administration, international affairs, etc. MSA is an official language in 25 countries around the world, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It’s also the version that’s taught to schoolchildren in Arabic-speaking countries.
However, no one speaks Modern Standard Arabic as a native language, and it’s almost never used in everyday life.
Tomasz Kamusella, from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explains this paradox quite well:
Standard Arabic was spoken in daily life over a millennium ago; nowadays, there is no speech community of Modern Standard Arabic. No one speaks it as their first (“native”) language, that is, as a vernacular. (…) Literate Arabs read and write in standard Arabic. They deliver and listen to official speeches and university lectures in the same language. Every day, all and sundry hear standard Arabic steeped in Quranic recitations during prayers in mosque or when radio or television news are broadcast, where the anchor reads aloud the appropriate written texts. The same is true of the internet which is an intensely literate medium (despite the growing numbers of video materials available in Arabic vernaculars).
— Tomasz Kamusella in “The Arabic Language: A Latin of Modernity?”
To summarize, Modern Standard Arabic is used in written contexts all across the Arabic-speaking world. In spoken communication, MSA is a “lingua franca” only in official, academic, and media contexts (for example, journalists on the popular network Al Jazeera use MSA to broadcast the news).
*Arabic speakers use the term العربية الفصحى (al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā) to refer to Standard Arabic.
In addition to literary or standard Arabic, there are many different varieties and dialects of Arabic around the world. These colloquial dialects are the daily language for communicating among family, between friends, while shopping, in the street, and generally throughout everyday life.
Though literate Arabic speakers know literary Arabic and use it for written communication, they’ll almost exclusively speak the native dialect of their community in everyday life.
How many Arabic dialects are there?
Approximately 30 different Arabic dialects have been cataloged, but they can all be grouped into 6 overarching families:
- Maghrebi Arabic: this includes variants spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, and Malta;
- Egyptian Arabic: this is arguably the most spoken Arabic dialect, due to Egypt’s relatively large population (110 million) and the popularity of Egyptian cinema;
- Levantine Arabic: this group includes Lebanese and Syrian Arabic, as well as dialects spoken in Jordan and Palestine;
- Peninsular Arabic: this is the variety of Arabic that you’ll hear in countries along the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates);
- Sudanese Arabic: you’ll find the majority of these variants in Sudan, which has a population of 22 million. This family also includes dialects spoken in Chad and Juba (in South Sudan);
- Mesopotamian Arabic: also called Iraqi Arabic, this group includes variants spoken in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Kuwait.
Arabic dialect map
You can find 29 different variants on the Arabic dialects map below:
Differences between Arabic dialects
Dialects that belong to the same families are often similar. But the different groups vary widely in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.
To see some of these differences illustrated, watch the video below (also available on YouTube) where five students from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, and Qatar each say the same phrases in their native dialect.
Now that you have a better grasp of the richness of this language and the differences between literary Arabic and Arabic dialects, we can address two of the questions that are often at the front of Arabic learners’ minds:
- Do I need to learn Modern Standard Arabic, or should I choose a dialect?
- Where do I start if I want to learn both Modern Standard and a dialect?
As is often the case for complex questions like these, the answer is: “It depends on a few different factors!” Let’s have a look at some of the things you should consider when making these decisions:
- Motivations and goals
- Travel/life plans
- Availability of practice resources
- Level of difficulty
Goals: Why do I want to learn Arabic?
The first question to ask yourself is why you want to learn Arabic in the first place.
If your main goal is to talk with people in informal contexts, you should plan to prioritize learning a dialect. As we mentioned above, Modern Standard Arabic isn’t very common in daily life. Generally speaking, if you go to Egypt and speak Modern Standard Arabic to someone in a shop or on the street, they will understand you (if they went to school). But chances are they’ll respond in Egyptian Arabic, which you might have trouble understanding.
However, there are some very good reasons a person might want to learn literary Arabic:
- if you plan to read/write in Arabic
- if your main goals are to build up your CV and professional prospects
- if you want to learn more about the Arab world via primary documents written in Arabic
- if your goal is to become an interpreter or diplomat
- if you want to learn the language of your religion (specifically if you want to pray in Arabic and understand the Quran better).
Travel/life plans: Where do I plan to use my Arabic skills?
If you’re learning Arabic in order to travel, then you should definitely focus on the variant spoken in the country you’re going to. This will make basic communication much easier, and you’ll be able to navigate and get by in many situations.
The same is true if you’re just particularly interested in the culture of a given country. Movies, TV shows, and other videos are usually produced in dialect, and you’ll be much better equipped to understand them if you’re familiar with that variant.
Availability of learning resources: Will I be able to find the resources I need to learn Arabic?
This is another important point to consider, because it’s true that resources are more abundant for the most-spoken variants.
If you choose to learn literary Arabic, you’ll have no shortage of resources. Most learning methods offer a Modern Standard version.
Unfortunately, options for learning dialects are a bit more limited. You’ll be able to find resources—especially audiovisual—for learning Egyptian and Levantine Arabic fairly easily because learners seek these variants out most often. One of the reasons for this preference is pop culture: there are a lot of songs and movies produced in Egypt and Lebanon. Because of this, many learners hear these two dialects first.
For many of the other dialects, it will be a bit more difficult to find resources. Cédric, one of our own at MosaLingua, has Algerian roots and has had a very hard time finding courses in Algerian Arabic.
Level of difficulty
You might also want to weigh the level of difficulty: some Arabic dialects are more challenging than others. If you compare literary Arabic and colloquial Arabic, you’ll notice:
- literary Arabic is more simple with regard to the writing system and pronunciation (some dialects have more difficult pronunciation than others)
- colloquial varieties of Arabic are more simple with regard to grammar (which makes sense, considering that dialects are essentially spoken variants).
To conclude, this choice is a personal one, and it’s best to take stock of your situation to see what makes the most sense for you.
Another important question relates to the order of your learning. If you want to write and speak Arabic, you’ll need literary Arabic and a dialect. I know, life is never simple!
What (most) Arabic teachers will tell you
We’ve talked to many teachers and learners of Arabic, and it’s pretty common for teachers to recommend prioritizing literary Arabic (especially if they come from an Arabic-speaking country). There is a sense of pride on the part of these teachers that if you want to learn Arabic, you have to learn official Arabic – the version used in religious texts and in written communication.
Arabic learners prefer a hybrid approach
On the other hand, among Arabic language learners, the opinion is much more mixed.
For some, if your goal is to speak Arabic quickly, then learning literary Arabic before a dialect is almost like a person trying to use Elizabethan English on the streets of modern-day London. Passers-by would likely understand (mostly), but would certainly find it strange and would, of course, respond in modern English.
In actuality, there are also many people who have learned Arabic who do think that it’s a good strategy to start with standard Arabic. This is especially true when your goals are long-term and aimed at mastering the Arabic language both orally and in writing.
Literary or colloquial Arabic first: the verdict?
After having studied the question at length and compared all the opinions, we think that this oral vs. written distinction is the key to choosing the order in which you learn:
- If you want to focus on speaking, start with a colloquial variant. Then you can learn literary Arabic for reading and writing later.
- If your priority is reading and written communication, there’s no doubt you should prioritize literary Arabic. You can then complement this with the dialect that is most useful to you.
Yes, it is quite possible to learn both at the same time.
There are universities where students study literary Arabic and a dialect at the same time. This is the approach advocated by Munther Younes, a well-known expert in the field of learning Arabic as a foreign language. At Cornell University in the US, Professor Younes (originally from Jordan) has developed the “Integrated Approach” method. Students experience the same “diglossia” as young native speakers. This is exactly what children born in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, or any other Arabic-speaking country do. They learn literary Arabic at school (to read and write) and the local dialect to speak. In this sense, it seems a rather logical and worthwhile method.
By now, I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it was for us to decide on a direction for the MosaLingua Arabic app. This is a project we’ve had in mind for many years. We’re excited to say that it’s finally becoming a reality!
We’ve decided to start with a version that focuses on literary Arabic (Standard Arabic), for several reasons. They include:
- It is the most-studied variant in the world (and the most requested among our learners).
- Standard Arabic meets the needs of more people (religion, career, media, written communication, etc.).
- It allows students to follow the news in Arabic and access a greater number of audiovisual resources.
- Standard Arabic is almost universal in Arabic-speaking countries. (As a reminder, it is only appropriate in more formal and official contexts.)
- We think it will provide a very good introduction and a solid foundation. Students can build upon this base as they like.
Eventually, we would like to offer other variants, such as Egyptian Arabic, a variant of Maghrebi Arabic, and Levantine Arabic. Our hope is to be able to guide learners toward the best choice by asking them at the beginning of the course what their objectives and priorities are. Depending on the feedback, our platform would guide the learner toward literary Arabic or one of the variants.
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If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:
- Cohen, David. “Koinè, langues communes et dialectes arabes.” Études de linguistique sémitique et arabe, La Haye, Paris: Mouton, 1970, p. 105-125.
- Elgibali, Alaa, editor. Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said Badawi. American University in Cairo Press, 1996.
- Kamusella, Tomasz. “The Arabic Language: A Latin of Modernity?” Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics, vol. 11, no. 2, 2017, pp. 117-145. https://doi.org/10.1515/jnmlp-2017-0006.
- Younes, Munther. The Integrated Approach to Arabic Instruction. Routledge, 2014.