So you’ve decided you want to learn Arabic. That’s wonderful! But you’re probably confused right now with all of the varieties of Arabic, and asking questions like, “Which Arabic should I learn? Why are there different types of Arabic? What is MSA and where is it used?” And there are undoubtedly many more questions in your mind. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know before choosing which Arabic you want to learn.
Arabic is an amazing and fascinating language. It is spoken by more than 280 million speakers and is used in around 24 countries throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. Learning Arabic can help you learn about diverse cultures and expose you to more academic, travel, and career opportunities.
What are the different types of Arabic?
Before we talk about which Arabic you should learn, let me first explain what each of these are and how they are used nowadays.
We can divide Arabic into three categories:
- Classical Arabic (CA)
- Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)
Classical Arabic is used in Quran, a kind of “Ancient Arabic.” It’s very hard to understand, even for native Arabic speakers. Usually, people interested in really old literature or in Islamic studies learn it.
Modern Standard Arabic, as the name states, is a modernized version of Classical Arabic. This is is basically a standard version of Arabic that nearly all native speakers understand. This kind of Arabic is used for things like literature, media, and formal speeches. Most Arabic books are written in MSA, and also newspapers and news broadcasts are written and spoken in MSA.
However, let me make this clear: There are no native speakers of MSA. That is, nobody speaks it as their first language! Native Arabic speakers have to learn it in school. Most Arabs do not speak MSA at all, but only understand it–and some even find it hard to understand. MSA might feel a bit unnatural to Arabic speakers when they try to speak it, although they may be more proficient at writing it.
Dialects are basically everything else. A dialect is a spoken language, so you don’t usually find it written. It’s the language that Arabs use to communicate in their daily lives. However, each Arab country has its own dialect. For example, in Egypt, they speak Egyptian Arabic, while in Lebanon, they use Levantine Arabic, and so on.
Which one should I learn?
So now that you understand the types of Arabic, it’s time to choose which one works for you the best. Remember, it all depends on your goal, so it’s not a “one option fits all” kind of thing.
Let’s start with Classical Arabic. You only learn this if you have a specific, major goal, such as reading very old Arabic books, or to pursue Islamic studies, or, as a Muslim, to better understand the Quran. If any of these are your goal, then you should probably focus on Classical Arabic.
However, learning classical Arabic is best done with a solid base in Modern Standard Arabic. I would strongly recommend that you learn MSA first, so Classical Arabic is never the place to start.
Now that you know what Classical Arabic is and reasons it is studied, let’s do the same for MSA.
Modern Standard Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic, which is called “Al-Fusha” in Arabic, is a formal type of Arabic–the standardized, literary form of Arabic. It’s mostly used in media and other written contexts, notably in official, government matters and academic settings. Although MSA is the standard version, it is NOT a “lingua franca”. That is, it is not a language that Arabs normally use to verbally communicate with each other. Everyone uses their own dialect, but we understand each other.
MSA is a step to learning CA as I said earlier, as CA is much harder to learn. However, MSA is relatively harder than the dialects, as well. So think about it like a ladder from the easiest (dialects) to the hardest (Classical Arabic). By hardest, I am mainly referring to the complexity of grammar and vocabulary.
You should learn MSA if your goal is to be able to read anything written in Arabic, understand the news or formal speeches, or understand academic topics. However, if your goal is to communicate with people, then I don’t think it’s the best way to set about learning the language, and you should probably go for one of the dialects.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of the word “dialect” in this context. I say dialects because this is the culturally accepted term, but, in fact, they are different enough from each other to be considered separate languages linguistically. There are about 10 different Arabic “languages” that each have their own grammar rules, vocabulary, and sentence structure. However, the most popular is Colloquial Egyptian Arabic.
Again, you should learn a dialect if you want to travel to an Arabic speaking country or simply to communicate with people in Arabic. If your goal is not specific to a country, like it’s not “I want to learn Arabic to speak with Moroccan people,” then you should probably learn Egyptian Arabic. Before I discuss this, let me tell you which main dialects you should learn if you’re targeting a specific country.
- Egyptian Arabic → Egypt
- Gulf Arabic → Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia
- Levantine Arabic → Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine
- Maghrebi Dialect → Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya
- Iraqi Dialect → Iraq, eastern Syria
- Sudanese Dialect → Sudan, Southern Egypt
- Yemeni Dialect → Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, southern Saudi Arabia
Now if you’re not targeting a specific country and not concerned about the formal language as much as to understand and speak to people, or anything that we discussed earlier, then you should probably learn Egyptian Arabic!
If your goal is to make friends, travel to different countries, watch TV shows/movies/soap operas, understand and listen to songs, and communicate with people in various situations or do more things that require actually speaking or listening to the language, then Egyptian Arabic is for you.
The reason behind Egyptian Arabic being the most popular is that Egyptian media (movies, songs, tv shows, and so on) is widespread among all the Arabic-speaking countries. Even actors and singers of different countries sing and act in Egyptian Arabic to be able to reach a bigger audience, so you can do the same. If you want to communicate with more people, it’s better to learn Egyptian Arabic than to learn MSA or any other dialect. In fact, despite what many may claim, learning Egyptian Arabic can be an easier step before you learn MSA, and not vice versa.
To sum up, There are three main types of Arabic: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and dialects. If you want to learn Quran, pursue Islamic studies, or read old writings, then CA. If you want to read Arabic and use it to understand formal things like speeches, news, and modern literature, then MSA. And if you want to speak the language in a certain country, then learn the dialect spoken in that area. But if you just want to speak with Arab people in general and enjoy the language, then go for Egyptian Arabic!
Get started now, and ENJOY your Learning!