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

Written By: Talk In Arabic

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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.

   

  • Adam Aburatam

    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).

    • Iris

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

    • Zerane Benyelle

      Thanks for the reassuring clarification. For a moment I was stomped by Donovan’s comments. I have been taking MSA for a while now and all I could think was ” What, all that time wasted!” That said, I have to point out that I live in a multi cultural environment with Arabs from every where. It’s always amusing trying to figure out what they are saying. Sometimes they don’t understand each other.. I am more interested in reading, writing and listening to news.

      If I learn the dialect used here in Oman, (which incidentally varies from region to region) with whom will I speak it outside of Oman? I am looking at after…

    • Matthew Mauldon

      Hey as a complete beginner I found your expanation to be detailed and Im concerned as I dont see MSA available on this sight. Would it be safe to assume if I learn Egyptian Arabic I can speak with the vast majority of Arabic speakers and be understood?

  • Adam Aburatam

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

  • walid kors

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

  • Ross

    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!

  • Forrest

    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.

  • Hakeem

    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!

    • Talk In Arabic
      Admin

      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.

  • Ibn Adam

    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

    • James Cannon

      Ibn Adam,
      I do not believe people spoke Fusha in large numbers in thePast. In short, the idea of a decline seems illogical, or a myth.

      Fusha was always an elite language in Ummayad, Abasid, and Ottoman Empires. Illiteracy was always high, and is still high, in many Arabic speaking countries. It was a language confined to the religious scholars and staff at the courts of the Sultans.

      The dialects are, in a sense, a broken Arabic, a patois. They function as the peoples language, like Jamaican English or other dialects in the English Caribbean.

      • John Cowan
        Free Member

        The Prophet surely did not write in a variety of Arabic that only the educated could understand. That would have undermined his purpose. So at one time something close to Fusha was in fact spoken by Arabs in Arabia.

        We know from inscriptions that Old Arabic was far more dialectally diverse than its modern descendants. Indeed, it is clear from evidence that the writing system used for the Qu’ran was designed for a slightly different variety from the language itself. It mostly fits, but not quite.

        As for broken languages, there is no such thing. Egyptian Arabic is no more broken MSA than French is broken Latin. Indeed, the comparison between the Romance and the Arabic languages is very precise: the older variety of the language is preserved for religious purposes but was lost as an ordinary spoken language about 2000 years ago, surviving in its descendants, which are now different enough to be called separate languages by worldwide standards. A French-speaker cannot go to Portugal and be understood.

        The main difference is that some (not all) of the Romance languages came to be written (first for poetry, then for literary prose, then for workaday prose) and then a smaller group were standardized as national languages. This has not happened in the Arab world for political and social rather than linguistic reasons. So now it is as if the French person in Portugal was trying to communicate by speaking Latin; it might work with a few educated people, but not otherwise.

        In my opinion, the Arab countries will never really develop until the people become literate in their own languages, as has happened throughout much of the rest of the world. I am not suggesting abandoning the study of MSA, merely that for native speakers too, MSA should be grounded in the local language and not the other way around.

  • Wesley

    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.

  • Yannis

    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?

  • Dana Pottratz

    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.

  • Elise

    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?

  • Amina Al Sherif

    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.

    • Zerane Benyelle

      Yeah, but the question is ” which dialect?”

      • John Cowan
        Free Member

        Some dialect of each country will have to be standardized, hopefully with concessions to other dialects. French was standardized on the dialect of Paris, English on the dialect of London, though both cities have drifted away from the standard since then (not for long enough to lose intelligibility). Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Macedonian were standardized on the dialect of Eastern Hercegovina (in modern Bosnia), because due to massive internal migration in the 19C it had become the most widespread variety. In Norway, there are two written standards, one close to Danish because Denmark ruled Norway for centuries, the other closer to western varieties of pre-Danish Norwegian. Everyone learns both written standards but speaks their own dialect (there is no stigma about speaking like where you come from, and indeed it is expected), and mutual intelligibility is mostly fine.

  • Michael Covel

    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.

  • Arne Kirchner

    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

  • Ashley

    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.

  • 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?

  • Shamil Basayuv

    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…

  • akshan

    just a quick question to those speaking that MSA is not necessary to be taught – what about books and newspapers? how shall I read, for example, Harry Potter which is published in MSA?=)

    • John Cowan
      Free Member

      In Austria (outside Vienna) and in Switzerland the rule is “speak dialect, write Standard German.” In Switzerland, spoken Standard German is used only to talk with French and Italian Swiss and with foreigners.

  • Erika Madjid

    I’m indonesian, i recently studying MSA. and i agreed with Adam. MSA is like bahasa Indonesia. Even though not all people here conversing with bahasa Indonesia, but we forced to understand it. So how could i speak with batak if i only knew sundanesse. It’s like how could i speak to egyptians if i could only speak syrians. So i highly recommend to learn MSA.
    It’s your decision though. I’m learning MSA because i’m muslim and MSA is my officially religion language. And i think as long as quran exist MSA would never extinc.

  • Usman

    In order to build a solid foundation, you must learn MSA, and then go onto learn a dialect if you wish.

  • Mike Diab

    I agree completely with Michael Covel above. Distinguishing literacy from fluency is essential, then you can make a decision for yourself. I would think it to be logical that if you are going to be travelling throughout the Arab world it would be best to equip yourself with a base such as MSA (perhaps not on an advanced level). While traveling you will at least be literate and then better adapt to the dialect being used around you. If however you want to be able to communicate with people from a specific country or region only then the dialect may be a good starting point. I am still of the opinion that even if the latter were the case it would still be essential to have a grasp of foundation MSA as this makes reading and writing a whole lot easier when learning Arabic from scratch. That said, learning MSA should hardly ever hold aim to be fluent as its colloquial value is not high. If you are learning Arabic so that you are able to articulate complex subject matter on a scholarly level then by all means…

  • Yasmin

    Typical Colonial thinking. Unless you’re wanting to only visit and or live in a single Arab speaking country, you’d be remiss to not learn MSA first. Without the grammar and vocabulary, you’d be struggling to learn all those dialects on top of each other. Fus’ha is the way to go bro, then learn the local ways.

    The real issue is that it takes years to master MSA and very few Americans have the dedication to see it through, so they often look for shortcuts. There are no shortcuts. Learn the sarf kabeer wa sagheer and learn nahw and learn the hurooful illah and learn how roots work. Only then will it all fall into place truly.

    • John Cowan
      Free Member

      “Unless you want to visit just one European country, you should start by learning Latin first.” Does that even make sense?

  • TechnoGlowStick

    Thank you so MUCH! I was going to ignorantly learn MSA because I thought it would be understood by a majority of the Arab speaking world, UNTIL I read this article! ^_^

    Because of your article I have made a decision. I have decided to try and learn Egyptian Arabic!
    Although I may not obtain fluency (Because who truly speaks a language fluently anyway; especially a second language) I will try my hardest! I found some software on Ebay that teaches Egyptian Arabic, so I will be using that method!

    Thank you very much! ^_^

    And God bless!

  • Sheila
    Premium Member

    I recognize that I might get conflicting ideas, but I’m reaching out to this community for advice. I am a volunteer living in the U.S. and working with refugees from all over the world. I am a native speaker of English, but I also speak Spanish and French fluently. I would like to learn Arabic to be able to communicate (mostly spoken communication, not writing) with the refugees I serve. The majority of the Arabic-speaking people I interact with are from Sudan, but I also want to be able to communicate with those I serve from Syria and Iraq. If you were in my position, would you learn Sudanese Arabic or MSA? I have read and understand the arguments for and against learning a dialect first. But my question is, what if I don’t plan on traveling to a particular area but I do want to converse with people who all speak different dialects? If I learn one dialect, such as Sudanese, would that help me to be able to learn other dialects, such as Iraqi? When I tell my Iraqi friends that I’m considering learning Sudanese Arabic, they are appalled, and they ask why in the world I would want to learn a dialect instead of the “original” Arabic. I have dabbled in learning Arabic for over a year now, but I’m not really getting anywhere. I think it’s largely because I’ve overthought this whole thing, and I am afraid of learning the “wrong” Arabic. Advice, please! Thank you in advance for your input, and it’s good to be here!

    • Jeff Brown
      Free Member

      Hello. Your question is a perfect example of someone who should NOT learn MSA. If you’re going to work with refugees, as the author has pointed out: They will not be speaking MSA but they will be speaking their local dialect. Do not learn MSA. it will just be a wast of time. Find someone in your community from Sudan and pay them to tutor you. Start out with magazines and then graduate to Children’s stories. Don’t do any reading or writing. (To become fluent including reading and writing will take you 2,000 hours). You don’t need to read and write because you’ll only be speaking with the refugees. The magazines should have tons of pictures and the children’s stories should have big pictures and little text. Don’t translate the children’s stories, just have your tutor tell you the stories, slowly and lovingly. A good rate for a tutor is $15.00 per hour. I did 1000 hours of Egyptian Arabic and I speak it quite well but I can’t read or write even one word. Why do I need to read or write it? Forza Said. Good luck.

    • John Cowan
      Free Member

      I agree with Jeff Brown. And by the way, Sudanese/Chadic Arabic is a great counterexample to the claim that if you know one Arabic variety you know them all. No such luck.

      Cypriot Maronite Arabic is even harder, and approximately nobody understands outside the community (which mostly doesn’t live in Cyprus any more). It is basically Arabic pronounced in Greek.

  • Yasmin Hazim
    Free Member

    Salam, hi, before I comment let me introduce my background so you can appreciate my points better: 1. I’m Malay who knows Malay and Bahasa Indonesia

    2. I have been in contact with many Indonesians from various backgrounds: Bali, Jakarta, Medan, Jogja, so on and so forth.

    3. I have learnt the MSA at school and university.

    4. I have also learned spoken Arabic through friendships. Mainly Yemeni Arabic and a little Egyptian.

    Now with that aside, let me put some thoughts:

    1. Some commenters keep comparing MSA to Bahasa Indonesia. This is absolutely a faulty comparison. Some claim that Indonesians do not speak Bahasa Indonesia. Absolutely untrue. They do speak it and are fluent in it. Keyword: fluent. Yes many speak Javanese, minang, Balinese etc with each other depending on region, but they are also well versed in Bahasa Indonesia simply because that’s the national spoken language.

    If I go to Jogja and speak bahasa Indonesia, they can reply back with naturalness like it’s their mother tongue.

    If I go to Bali and speak Bahasa Indonesia they can reply naturally like as if they are speaking Balinese.

    So on and so forth.

    No one would laugh or look to me like I grow three heads if I speak Bahasa Indonesia.

    The same can’t be said of MSA.

    If I speak to an Arab of any nationality in MSA most of the time they will either reply back in MSA with a big grin like how one would grin when someone speaks Shakespeare language to you as an English speaker, or laugh, or look to you like you grow three heads or definitely treat you like foreigner or like not one of them. That translates to maybe being charged more for product, services etc.

    The same can’t be said with Bahasa Indonesia. To me, Bahasa Indonesia is just like standard British accent for British people (queen’s English) or standard American English for the Americans. Which means, it’s the spoken language for everyone. It’s not a theoretical language like MSA.

    The problem right now is MSA is a theoretical language, not a practical one.

    Listen to the native Arabs: NOBODY speaks MSA in real life situations, other than attempting to speak MSA with you out of respect. That’s all.

    Unlike Bahasa Indonesia everyone speaks it whether literate or not, whether they go to school or not -it is a totally practical language, not theoretical.

    If anything, I’d say learn MSA to understand formal reading materials. That’s totally a sound argument.

    But to keep arguing that it’s the standard Lingua Franca of native Arabs like as if it is standard British English (BRE) or standard American English (AME) is either very mistaken, or straightforward a stubborn denial of truth.

    It’s like saying, if you go to Scotland, in order to make people understand you, you will learn Shakespeare English and say things like “hither withern herewith therewith” because you adamantly believe that’s the language every British person knows. How does that sound to you?

    MSA= Shakespeare English. This is what native Arabs and those who know firsthand of Arabs and Arabic are saying.

    Whereas non-Arab or Arabic Arab teachers keep saying MSA is like BRE or AME like how English teachers keep saying grammar is English when truth is most people who are fluent in English do not even know what is adverb or what is tenses.

    Just like a non-native English teacher, put him or her with a native English speaker and chances are it’s like chicken and duck talking to each other (they don’t understand each other).

    Likewise with Spanish teacher, French teacher etc.

    But native English,Spanish,French,Arabic etc teacher will insist that to be able to speak fluently in the language you must study to death the language’s grammar terms eventhough fact is no native speaker know verb from the adverb.

    Okay I’m digressing a lot here but I believe I’ve made my point. Thank you.

  • Amelia Taylor
    Free Member

    Can someone help me? I’m not sure what I’d like to learn.

    I appreciate both sides of the argument for MSA vs dialogues.

    I want to go into Politics and use Arabic in diplomacy. I also want to be able to understand Arabic news and literature, so I feel MSA may be more useful.

    I want to learn it myself and have a limited budget.

    However, I’m also interested in watching Arabic TV/listening to music/etc.
    I want to be able to read and write Arabic as well as speak and understand it.

    I understand Egyptian Arabic is the most widely spoken dialect, but I’m not sure if it’s right for me, if I was to learn a dialect. I want to be able to travel all over the Arabic-speaking world.

    Advice?

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