Tuesday , December 6 2016
Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect

Why You Shouldn’t Learn Modern Standard Arabic Before A Dialect

One of the most common questions asked by learners of Arabic is 'should I learn Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect first'?

Dialect of course refers to any of the many local varieties of Arabic spoken across North Africa and the Middle East, and Modern Standard Arabic is the variety you see and hear when you turn on the news or read a newspaper.

This question is often asked by people who want to be conversational in Arabic too. We're not talking about students of politics or religion here necessarily.

Just people who want to travel and converse to people.

So let's clear this up.

 

Modern Standard Arabic is not the lingua franca of the Arab world

Perhaps in the realm of politics but certainly not for ordinary people.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there.

A lot of language products and courses market Modern Standard Arabic as the lingua franca (bridge or vehicular language) of the Middle East and North Africa.

They teach MSA as a 'conversational' language that will make communication between all Arabic-speaking people possible.

It's not accurate at all.

First of all, MSA is not a conversational language. There's not a single human being on the face of this planet who speaks it as a native language or uses it in day-to-day affairs.

It's what's called a prestige language.

Arabs learn MSA in school so they can read and write, understand and participate in politics, media and so on but you'll be hard pressed finding a single person anywhere who speaks it as a conversational second language.

Don't think of it as a neutral dialect either.

It's a modernized form of a language that's 1300 years old, full of archaic vocabulary and grammatically more complex than any modern spoken dialect.

When native Arabic speakers from two different countries speak to one another, what often happens when there's a communication barrier is one of them will adapt his or her dialect to the dialect of the other speaker.

For example, here in Egypt I often encounter Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis who 'Egyptianize' their speech somewhat while they're living here to get by.

What you don't see however are people walking around speaking Modern Standard Arabic to one another as a bridge language.

 

Learn Modern Standard Arabic to be widely understood but don't expect to understand anyone

… or for your conversations not to be completely awkward.

Modern Standard Arabic and the spoken dialects are so vastly different in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation that a person who is totally 'fluent' in MSA may not have any idea what a person's saying in a local dialect.

I've witnessed this personally many times here in the Middle East with advanced students of MSA who can't hold a simple conversation with an average Joe on the street.

Sure, you'll be understood by many people (though not all!) when you speak but don't expect to understand the reply.

What that means is that someone who spends all that time in a university back home studying Modern Standard Arabic and then moves to the Middle East is effectively starting a new language all over again.

If your original goal was to become conversationally fluent in Arabic then it makes those years feel like a waste of time.

Now of course, it's not fair to say that it is a complete waste – you're certainly much better off than a person with zero Arabic study if you've studied MSA but why waste time learning a language that's so incredibly different if your only goal is to become conversational?

Get started on a spoken dialect from day one!

 

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

This is a fairly well-known quote by Nelson Mandela and so relevant on the issue of Arabic dialects.

If you want to really, truly connect with people on their level then you need to speak their heart language – their mother tongue.

In the case of MSA, it's nobody's mother tongue.

Choose a spoken dialect, stick with it and see it through to fluency.

You'll have a much better time communicating with people of other dialects than you would if you tried doing it through MSA.

 

Not a member of TalkInArabic.com? Join today and get access to the largest and fastest growing resource online for spoken Arabic dialects.

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About Donovan Nagel

I'm a language educator, blogger and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning (especially Arabic!) and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

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22 comments

  1. I am highly impressed with your site and I refer constantly to the Levantine section (for me) and the Saudi section (to help my missus understand my daughter’s school teachers!).

    Thank you for your interesting point of view.

    However, my experience indicates that some of the views above are slightly misleading.

    Originally, I spoke West-Bank Palestinian Arabic. When I left that environment for one where there were no speakers of that dialect, in order not to forget my Arabic I started to learn MSA. After only 1 year of learning I found I could communicate with most Arabs I met, even if they replied in their dialect or endeavoured to standardise between dialect and MSA. The only problems I ever encountered were with Algerians who could not adapt to that standardisation and I in turn could not understand them, so in most cases (not all) we would resort to English. I’ve never had a problem (or very little problems) with others and I’ve met speakers from every Arabic-speaking country except Mauritania.

    To state that MSA is not a lingua franca of the Arab world is erroneous. If I speak and understand only Palestinian, how can I possibly communicate with, say, a Sudanese unless I ‘Egyptianise’ my speech (since many Arabs are familiar with Egyptian due to the entertainment world, but I have never been to Egypt and I know nothing of Egyptian entertainment except Umm Kulthum)? I have seen countless examples of Arabs using MSA to communicate with others from different Arab (or non-Arab) countries. How can we possible understand the news, listen to a talk, read a book or magazine, or write a proper letter if we don’t know MSA?

    Other such examples exist in the world, such as Indonesia. When I was there, I had to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia, even though no one speaks it as a mother tongue. I couldn’t waste my time learning Javanese, Sundanese, Madura, Batak, Minang, etc. in order to be understood unless I lived in an area where they spoke a specific language or dialect of Malay (I lived where they spoke Betawi, which I did pick up a little). I do not deny there are Arabs who don’t understand MSA, but as in Indonesia where there are people who don’t know Bahasa Indonesia, by and large we are forced to use Bahasa Indonesia to communicate.

    Another point to be made is that it is much easier to learn a dialect after studying MSA, than to learn MSA armed only with a dialect. The transition from West Bank dialect to MSA was a hard one for me. Now after many years of speaking MSA I have an excellent book from the US whereby I am relearning Palestinian from MSA (the book is aimed at people who know MSA) and this ‘re-transition’ is a much easier one, as the similarities between MSA and dialect plus the simplified grammar are refreshing.

    To claim MSA is ‘archaic’ is the same old put-down I’ve seen all over the net by non-Arabs. How do we use dialect for standard technical, professional, legal, engineering, medicine, marketing, etc. terms if MSA so ‘archaic’? What is the point of Al-Mawrid dictionary being republished every year if not to provide modern and technical Arabic vocabulary?

    Dialect is great for the area you live or plan to visit. But you won’t get by on it all around the Arab world (or outside for that matter). Having said that, I’m joining Talk In Arabic today! Perhaps you can add Algerian one day in case I meet up with my old friends again? Hehehe…

    All the best, Donovan…

    • Nicolas Guionnet

      Mi Adam !
      I just wanted to say thank you for your comment which is really encouraging after what I have read above.
      For a moment I thought that beginning with MSA was a mistake … 🙂
      By the way, I have spent some time in indonesia and did my best to learn Bahasa Indonesia. I reach the same conclusion as you.
      I am french and I have spent some time learning MSA for the pleasure first. I am thinking that now, getting a teacher would be a good thing for me.
      What a beatyful language !! 🙂

    • Louise Gallorini

      I quite agree with you Adam. I love this site in that it helps me learning dialects with good ressources, but it would be hell if I hadn’t a solid grounding in MSA before that.
      Since I didn’t have the chance of having a family speaking in a dialect nor staying with one in the Arab world for long, learning MSA have given me a “short cut” or rather a sort of “base” on which I built my dialectical skills.
      I am now quite happy of being able to talk with anyone in Lebanon in the Lebanese dialect (now I’m trying to get the same level of fluency in Saudi Arabic), but also happy with understanding books and news and written stuff … And occasionally, speaking in MSA too (university, talks with media people, some subjects inside a conversation, etc).
      I guess the “frontier” dialect/MSA differs from country to country, also. People in Jordan are highly likely to be able to respond to you in MSA or try MSA with foreigners they don’t understand than say, people in Morocco, from my experience.
      But in the end, for me, learning MSA and a dialect at the same time is not a problem since its use in everyday life is not the same, so no confusion as to what would happen if I learned, say, Spanish and Italian at the same time. It’s more like learning formal french (that we use on TV and universities, though we don’t really speak it) and the “patois”, such as the one used in my region, specific words and phrasing that are never written down but widely used by the locals … And not understood by anyone else in the country !
      Anyhow, this website is great, because there is a terrible lack of learning ressources in Arabic dialects, and I had to learn the Levantine the hard way (just watching lebanese TV trying to make sense of it and listening to people before trying my luck over 2 years by interacting with people).

    • Hi Adam.
      What is the name of the book you’re currently using to “re-learn” the Palestinian dialect? ?
      Cheers,
      Iris

  2. Apologies to you, Donovan, as I just discovered that the site covers Algerian. Don’t know how I missed that all along…

  3. I remember that young teacher, he’s the best 🙂

  4. To either Donovan or Adam,

    Since both of you have evidently self-studied MSA, I’m wondering which books or other resources you recommend for self-study of MSA? I’m here at talkinarabic for spoken dialects, but I’m also interested in media Arabic, technical Arabic translations, etc. which will require MSA. Thanks!

  5. Great conversation! I agree with Donavan and Adam. It all depends on context. If you are traveling all over the Arab world then MSA can be a great start. One of my best friends started off with MSA. He says it is like a key to unlock all of the dialects. He now is working on his second dialect. The dialects rules choose to follow different forms of grammar and vocab. If there is a specific place you want to use your Arabic then start with that dialect. IF you are not sure, then the MSA won’t harm you…..unless it does.

  6. With all due respect to Donovan and the site, whereas, I understand the methodology for encouraging students to learn one or more of the numerous dialects or varieties of spoken Arabic, however the site seems to go out of its way to dissuade people from learning MSA. However, in reality probably a lot, if not most students of Arabic have a preference for approaching the language learning MSA primarily, then localizing it to particular dialects if at all. The irony of course is that MSA is based on Classical Arabic, which itself was a Qurashi dialect.

    In any case from a business standpoint, you could potentially increase your subscribers exponentially, if along with the numerous dialectical modules you actually add a MSA module. There is a market for thousands for religious-minded students, literary students, news and media minded students of Arabic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there is a lot of western students, who want learn lets say Tunisian Arabic, but realistically, the demand for MSA would be dramatically higher. Just think of MSA as just another module, or business expansion, rather than getting bogged down with an old a methodological debate.

    Thank you for your consideration!

    • Hi Hakeem,

      Thanks for your reply and feedback.

      Perhaps in the future if there’s enough demand for “spoken” MSA modules we’ll consider it but the reality is that this site is addressing a huge need for genuine colloquial material. There are actually already quite a lot of MSA-focused sites and tools out there but very very little for spoken dialects.

      For anyone truly interested in actually travelling throughout the Middle East, doing business and humanitarian work beyond basic MSA expressions, it’s essential that they learn a colloquial dialect. A lot of MSA graduates end up starting all over again when they get to the Middle East and realize that their MSA hasn’t adequately prepared them for communication.

  7. Humm seems there are many opinions and feelings about the Arabic language. In my research I have discovered two sad events. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire Fusha has been on a decline in most cases by design. The Arabs have left the love for Fusha, they say Sarf (morphology is difficult), I find it fascinating. What language do you know of that can derive 65 different words meanings from just one consonantal root.

    What ever language you speak have a look at its history, perhaps you will find it was formal and slowly became informal and slangy over time. Arabic is the same but it history of change is very dark and sad. Uniquely, the Fusha from long ago is still here and spoken, other forms of Arabic cannot match its resilience.

    Finally, its sad when people with high degrees write books about Arabic cannot understand the meaning of Quranic Arabic. The use of the Masdar (verbal noun) or the placement of the khabar before mubtada. They refer to fusha as mid evil and place MSA on a pedestal.

    qahwama.com

  8. Thanks for the conversation, it’s been fascinating to read. I have taken 3 years of MSA and feel as if I have a pretty good grounding in it. I’m just now starting to study the Egyptian dialect and can automatically see the differences. Right now, my goal is to be understood, so that may mean a mix between MSA and Egyptian colloquial until I get a handle on spoken communication with people.

  9. Very interesting conversation. I also remember, when I lived with a Palestinian and two Berber-originated Moroccans, their desperate attempts to speak in MSA and then sticking to French. I’m now learning MSA (because I need it academically) and would like to know: how much time does it take when you know MSA well (“well” as in “well enough to read a book, or listen to news on radio”), to learn a dialect like Lebanese or Egyptian or Syrian?

  10. I agree that this is a very interesting conversation. I would also like to add my grain of salt, on a linguistic level. I think it is important to view the dialects and MSA not as two separate languages, but as different levels in a continuum between the spoken and the “prestige” version of a single linguistic entity. And I do agree with Donovan that if you want to speak “like a native” it’s best to start with a dialect, and then branch out to learning MSA (which is much more complicated!) once you have a good basis in dialect and feel the need. This is what Arabic speakers all do. Arabic speakers almost never speak “pure” MSA anyway (well, maybe some politicians, religious scholars or journalists do), but they will sprinkle their dialect with words and structures from MSA when necessary, depending on their ability to do so, in order to be better understood by speakers of other dialects. This is a common phenomenon known as “diglossia” in linguistic circles, and it occurs all the time in regions where two languages or versions of a language exist side-by-side but have different statuses within the culture (one considered a “low” (spoken) dialect and the other considered the “high” or “proper” (written) language or version of the language). I’ve noticed that many Arabic speakers are also quite biaised in their opinions of the different dialects of Arabic, and have a hard time understanding why someone would want to learn a dialect, since MSA and/or fusHa are considered to be the only “real” Arabic (even if they don’t speak it themselves!). This certainly doesn’t help promoting dialect learning, and in my opinion contributes to the fact that language-learning resources in Arabic dialects are so difficult to find. Thanks to the Internet, and sites like “Talk in Arabic”, this is beginning to change.

  11. Thanks for posting!! However, I am preparing to go to the middle east and I plan to learn the dialect. Although I have been planning to learn arabic now because I have heard that understanding that well may help me to pick up one of the dialects well. I do not know which specific place I will be yet and that is why I have been working towards arabic now because it will likely be years before I am in the middle east.

    What are your thoughts? Is it a waste of time for me to be learning arabic now or should I just wait to learn a dialect later?

  12. A few things I have noticed after teaching Arabic to Second Language learners (with the native language being English) and translating for going on 6 years now.

    Foreigners hang onto the importance of MSA like it is the Bible. No joke. Foreigners (meaning people who speak English as a primary language and learn Arabic later in life) are constantly hanging onto the importance of MSA, insisting it “unlocks Arabic dialects around the world.” This is part of the old school of thinking when it comes to learning Arabic. The Defense Language Institute lives off of it, Universities thrive on it, but the truth is, times are changing, and so will the importance of Modern Standard Arabic.
    This comes from years of watching my students attempting to use their (slightly) precise MSA grammar on locals who barely know how to read and write, and attempting to connect with them. Speaking MSA not only earmarks you as a foreigner, but it also creates a type of class barrier between you and the local Arabic speakers. Like it or not, it just does.
    For years in the linguistics realm, Arabic has been taught first with MSA, beginning with basic grammar attempting to teach people how to read and write in a type of Arabic they will never use again. Imagine a United States Army DLI linguist trying to translate between a local Iraqi on the side of the road and a US soldier. It gets to the point of hilarity because the Iraqi is not using proper grammar and sentence syntax. The linguist then proceeds to complain about how everyone around him/her is speaking in broken Arabic, and they cannot understand the language. It’s not broken- its different. And like it or not, dialects in the Middle East are changing rapidly, and the old thinking of MSA being the sacred language of the Quran and the highest form of Arabic, etc etc, will not save the longevity of MSA.

    The truth behind this article is true, especially if you look at where Arabic is moving after the Arab Spring. I was in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, and was born and raised in Egypt. So as a native speaker, I see the world moving forward in dialect, and not in MSA at all.
    After the Arab Spring, each nation has taken to an interesting phenomenon- speaking, proudly, in their own dialect as a form of self identification and national pride. If you think MSA is the language of all things written, think again. Walk into an Egyptian bookstore, and you will see the growing popularity in written literature is not in MSA, but in fact, Egyptian dialect.
    This can be further contributed to the large Social Media movement that is just now gripping the Middle East as it did the United States a few years ago. People are not going to Facebook and Twitter in Modern Standard Arabic. They are writing in their own dialects- and now we seen a phenomenon we have never seen before technology and social media- dialects in a written form. This is also applying to local magazines, blogs, you name it.
    I admire what this website has done, because despite what most Arabic as a Second Language learners insist, Modern Standard Arabic is not the way to go. If you speak in MSA to me, a native speaker, I would probably laugh and move on. It is comparable to speaking Shakespearian English to an American. It flags you as uneducated of the people’s local culture, which, after the Arab Spring, will mark you as a definite tourist and foreigner, and more times than not, speakers from the Middle Eastern nation you are attempting to converse with in your MSA will default to English.
    When learning Arabic initially, if you are not immersing yourself in the language by traveling to a Middle Eastern nation, you will never truly learn the roots of the Arabic language. You might come close- but you will never capture the culture and spirit that is so intrinsically part of understanding the language.

  13. As an anthropologist and sociolinguist, my take on pedagogical focus from being a student of Arabic is this: in a classroom which is teaching MSA and primarily grammar based (most programs in the U.S.), the goal is literacy, not fluency. It was the same way with German and with French. Do these programs teach us how Arabs actually speak? Or French? Or Germans? Not at all. But they enable us to read in those languages, write in those languages, read subtitles, etc. In other words, they enable self-study.

    Alternatively, all the Shaami dialect I know I picked up from independent study, watching movies, or conversing with Arab students on campus. I tend to lapse into it when speaking myself, and this evidences something very important: building competence in the dialect is about fluency, not literacy.

    There are plenty of advanced Arabic students here who can read a sentence in MSA, translate it, respond to it, understand it. But these same students will have difficulty producing the same sentence extemporaneously or sometimes even reading it out loud. Why? Because they are literate but not fluent. The skills of listening and speaking become underdeveloped when only studying MSA precisely because it is a language of written communication.

    I feel that both are essential, and that the main challenge is to find/design Arabic programs which don’t focus too much on certain skills to the detriment of others. I recently acquired a copy of a book by Munther Yunes at Cornell who has written about an “Integrated Approach to Teaching Arabic” – a valuable read.

  14. Hello,
    I totally agree with Amina and Michael. I have lived in Tunis for 18 months now and have learned the dialect since then for around 10 hours a week besides work. MSA would not help me and create this class barrier Amina talks about. The dialect, which I consider a language, closer to the neighbor languages, a bit like Spanish and Portuguese, helps a lot to communicate.
    I appreciate MSA and I already know to read the script, even though I write down words in a transcription too beside the Arabic to make sure I pronounce correctly later on. My main goal is to understand my neighbor, my colleague and my friends, and therefore the dialect is the way to go. Later on, I’d like to continue on MSA too as it’s the door to religion and broader culture of Arabic countries.
    I understand too that people who don’t live in an Arabic country may go the other way and start with MSA. It may be easier for them and there is a lot more material out than for the dialects. That’s why I love this side and check regularly what’s new.
    Thanks a lot, arne

  15. I am half Arabic, so I learned to speak Arabic growing up. I have never studied a day of Arabic in my life & learned to speak it fluently solely from conversing in my household. Although I cannot read or write it at all, with my dialect I am able to easily converse with other people who speak different dialects such as Lebanese, Iraqi, Algerian, Morrocan, & Palestinian. The only dialect I have trouble understanding is Syrian. I think learning Classical Arabic or MSA isn’t necessary because realistically, no one speaks it regularly. It’s something they learned through high school, but infrequently utilize. It is much easier to listen & decipher someone speaking in their dialect than to have them speak to me in Classical Arabic. I think Classical Arabic or MSA is overrated and something that non-Arabs emphasize, when in reality, most Arabs recommend people learn a dialect & will warn you that learning MSA will be time taken away from learning a spoken dialect. If I am able to understand & speak with others without any type of education in the language while only knowing my spoken dialect (which also involves a lot of French) then I am proof that knowing MSA is not necessary. I recommend learning a dialect for the country you plan on visiting. You’ll naturally learn words from other dialects as you expand your interactions with various Arabs.

  16. Charles Nankin

    Well done to all you guys – this is a fascinating conversation!

    My question: where is MSA actually SPOKEN? I imagine it is essential for Koranic study, although I am not sure if spoken fluency (speak and listen without text) is necessary for this? But is spoken fluency in MSA required for other uses? Diplomacy, business?

  17. But if you told to yours arabic friend, speak MSA with me , so he will certainly speak that language with you, i think MSA is more important than dialect, most arabs know MSA and can speak it. if i learn egyptian dialect then iraqis will neither understand me nor i will understand them but if i learn MSA so at least they will understand me…

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