Which Dialect of Arabic Should You Learn?
Whether for business, research, or pleasure, learning Arabic as a foreign language has seen a rise in popularity over the years, and at one point had the fastest-growing foreign language class enrollment in the United States. With over 350 million speakers, Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world and is the official or co-official language of 24 countries. It is also a popular second language in several others. Learning Arabic is an educational investment that is sure to help you with whatever path you may take: governments, newspapers, NGOs and businesses all over the world are constantly looking for educated Arabic speakers for work in both their local and international offices, and it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
After making the decision to study Arabic, the fledgeling student is faced with a myriad of different decisions: literary or colloquial Arabic? If a dialect, which dialect? If literary, classical or modern? And what’s the difference between them all anyways?
Modern Standard Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) was developed in the early 19th century in order to create a language that all Arabic speakers, regardless of country of origin, could understand. Today, MSA is used for official and professional purposes, such as government, journalism, literature, and scientific research. However, there are no native speakers — it is not spoken at home or in the streets, and it is only taught in school as a formal version of Arabic. Some Arabic-speakers cannot speak it at all, especially if they are uneducated.
Organizations such as the UN recognize MSA as the sole official Arabic, and respected news organizations, such as Al Jazeera, use this form of the language for all of their publications. In addition, most colleges teach Modern Standard Arabic in their beginning and intermediate Arabic courses. Al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya, linked below, is the most commonly used Arabic textbook in university classrooms.
The most commonly used Arabic textbook in university classrooms. I myself used it to learn MSA when I was a student.
Closely related to MSA is Classical Arabic, which used in the Qur’an and in most religious contexts. Islamic scholars, lecturers, and academics all use Classical Arabic in their day-to-day work. Though the pronunciation of MSA and Classical Arabic are identical, the latter is grammatically stricter and borrows less terminology from other languages, such as English. However, like MSA, Classical Arabic does not have any native speakers, and is mostly used in writing.
Levantine Arabic, sometimes called Shaami, is spoken in the area that is referred to as the Levant — that is, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Because these countries were formerly occupied by first the Ottoman Empire, which spoke Turkish, and then France, this vernacular is characterized by a few loanwords from both of these languages, as well as by its unique syntax. Up to 20 million people speak this dialect, and, due to Lebanon’s status as a main hub of Arabic music, fashion, and pop culture, it is commonly understood by speakers of other dialects. Fairuz, Nancy Ajram, Najwa Karam — these are some of the biggest pop stars in the Arab world, and they all sing in Shaami.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab World with a population of almost 95 million, making Egyptian Arabic, also known as Masry, the most popular dialect for beginning students. From the 1940s to 1970s, Egypt was the cultural powerhouse of the Middle East, producing some of the most popular and influential films, TV shows, and songs that were enjoyed all over the Arabic-speaking world. Because of these cultural exports, most Arabic speakers in the Middle East can at least understand Masry. It is known for its unique pronunciation of certain letters, which makes it stand out amongst the other Arabic dialects.
Maghrebi Arabic, or Darija, refers to the colloquial Arabic spoken in the Maghreb region in North Africa — that is, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. It is a complex language heavily influenced by Berber, a group of indigenous languages in the area, as well as by French, Spanish, or Italian. As a result, its grammar, lexicon, and pronunciation are extremely different from the other types of colloquial Arabic, and it is not uncommon for native Arabic speakers to have trouble understanding Maghrebis when they speak. In fact, even regional differences can vary widely between different Darijas — a Moroccan may not be able to understand a Tunisian, for example. These North African dialects encompass a large geographical area, and really highlight the diversity of the Arab world.
Gulf Arabic, also called Khaleeji, is spoken in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Oman. Though English is widely spoken in some Gulf Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the economic influence of the Gulf States makes learning Khaleeji a considerable option despite its distinct accent. However, because the Gulf does not have the pop culture influence that Egypt and Lebanon have, Khaleeji is not as widely understood as Masry and Shaami.
Mesopatamian, Hijazi, Sudanese, Yemeni — in total, Arabic has up to 30 different dialects, some of which are very similar and others that are incredibly different. In some countries, multiple forms of vernacular can be used, and there can be significant regional differences, such as between rural and urban, or coastal and inland. Do not be discouraged, however — though not all dialects are mutually intelligible, and choosing to focus on one type of colloquial Arabic does not mean that you will be unable to understand any others. In the map above, you’ll see that Arabic dialects exist in a continuum, and are not strictly defined. Each dialect belongs to a larger subgroup represented by the main color families shown on the map, which means that these neighboring dialects share certain grammatical or lexical similarities.
Why Do You Want to Learn Arabic?
Which Dialect Should I Learn?
Before asking this question, you should first ask yourself another: why do you want to learn Arabic? Do you want to work for a government or international organization? Then Modern Standard would be your best bet. On the other hand, if you are looking to work with Syrian refugees, you should learn Shaami.
The cold, hard truth is that Arabic is one of the most difficult languages to learn. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Arabic is a category IV language, ranking in difficulty alongside Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. Besides its many colloquial variations, its cursive script, troublesome pronunciation, and particular grammar make learning Arabic a daunting task. At the end of the day, you should really focus on the dialect that interests you the most, as that is what will keep you engaged in your studies despite the hardships.
If you can manage, choose two!
Depending on your personal and professional goals, it might be a good idea to pair your studies of Modern Standard Arabic with that of a colloquial dialect. This way, you will be properly equipped with the ability to both consume Arabic media and literature in formal Arabic, while also being able to use colloquial to speak with all the new Arabic-speaking friends you are sure to make as you start learning.
There is no wrong choice -- whichever form of the language you choose, you will not be disappointed. Each and every Arabic-speaking country has its own unique cultures and customs, and there is a wealth of art, music, literature and film that will help you familiarize yourself with the language and make you a 'Arabi speaker in no time.