Should I Learn Modern Standard Arabic or a Dialect?

If a foreigner comes to work or live in your country, should they learn Modern Standard Arabic or the dialect?

This is part three in the series “Arabs Say…” featuring Arabic speakers from around the Arab world who gives their views on their language and how it is used today. Of course, we should keep in mind that these are personal views and do not represent the views of everyone in their countries. Still, we can learn a lot about the overall linguistic situation and some commonalities and regional differences.


  1. I agree with many of these opinions, perhaps because as a non-native speaker I learned MSA first (and, so far, it’s the only one I feel really comfortable with, though I am picking up dialects). As Sohaib (from Iraq) said above, it’s a good tool to have to fall back upon in case one is stumbling through dialect, and it can be used anywhere. While some dialects (such as Egyptian) are encountered widely through the Arab world owing to the proliferation of movies recorded in Egypt or dubbed into Egyptian dialect, one would be hard-pressed to find someone in Iraq who speaks fluent Maghrebi. MSA is good to fall back on, even if it does (to echo what Nadine said) sound a bit robotic and stilted. It is, at least to some degree, understood by most if not all Arabs.

    I believe that in an academic setting, whether self-studying or receiving formal classroom instruction, Modern Standard Arabic should be the foundation and then, once a solid base in it is established, students can pick a dialect to learn either independently or as an augment to MSA.

    1. I agree. And there are advantages to both approaches. It’s such a controversial topic whether you should start with MSA and then learn a dialect or vice versa. People seem to have really strong feelings about this one way or the other. (My personal opinion is probably so unpopular I hardly dare put it out there!) Of course, MSA and colloquial dialects each have their place. And for a learner, it all depends on their goals–whether they want to easily communicate (but maybe not sound natural) with people from all over the Arab world or just communicate with locals in the place they’re living or read literature or, or, or…
      I always like to use physical exercise as an analogy for language learning. There’s no one right way. Some methods may be more or less efficient, but in the end, it all depends on your goals and preferences.

  2. Jeez Loueez ‘alaik yaa Mustafa ! Who are these people in the KSA who would think a person has mental health issues for conversing in Fusha–bratty teenagers !? Then let them think I am the most autistic, disturbed person in the world. And shame on them for thinking the language of their ancestors and of the Qur’an is the language of mental disturbance.

    1. I think what Mustafa is saying is that speaking MSA in everyday conversation is so odd–something native speakers would normally never do–that it sets off a red flag for him. The only time he may have experienced this is from people with autism. And there is, interestingly, something to this. I found this study: Non-colloquial Arabic in Tunisian Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder . Individuals with autism (or maybe more specifically Asperger’s?) have difficulties with pragmatics (appropriate language register or conventional rules of conversation), and this makes for an interesting situation in diglossic societies–such as the Arab world, where two (or more!) varieties of Arabic are used… but for specific purposes. And here’s an article I just found about a young man with autism from Egypt who only uses MSA. In any case, I don’t think Mustafa is saying that MSA is bad, just that it is odd to use in many (or most) situations–just as it would be odd to speak Latin or Shakespearean English with your neighbor or waiter. Of course, I’m sure people are more understanding and forgiving of a non-native speaker who uses MSA in situations where native speakers would normally use the colloquial language.

  3. I’m not surprised that so many of the participants in the survey said MSA. There’s definitely a sense of pride and cultural identity tied to MSA among Arabs. But I am, at the same time, surprised since the question is specifically “if a foreigner comes to work or live in your country.” I remember when I realized just how odd it is to use MSA in everyday speech: When I first went to study Arabic in Egypt, my roommate was an Arabic major from Korea and was only learning MSA. I remember going places with him and seeing the amusement on locals’ faces when he’d start talking to them in MSA, which he spoke quite proficiently. They’d usually reply in Egyptian Arabic, and when he couldn’t understand well, sometimes translate to MSA for him–but the interactions were always awkward and confusing. 🙂

  4. As a non native speaker, it was very helpful to learn MSA first as building a solid background to help pronounciate letters in the Arabic alphabet. You can choose the dialect later as it could be determined by what path you choose to take. Maybe you have a career in Saudia Arabia and so it’s best to study that dialect or maybe you met someone in the North and you choose to go that route. At least you will have the foundation needed to choose

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