When it comes to learning Arabic, choosing which form to learn is by far the number one concern among learners. And, it’s a very valid question. What's the worst that can happen after you spend time learning a language passionately? Is it to find out that you don't actually understand what the native speakers are saying? Or is it when the native speakers tell you that's not how they speak the language? Or is it when you realize that there are different dialects out there, and each dialect is limited intelligible?
Modern Standard Arabic is the standard language of the Arab people; however, it's not spoken by the Arab people on a daily basis. People only use dialects in their day-to-day conversations. The table below shows when the dialects and Modern Standard Arabic are used:
|Dialect||Modern Standard Arabic|
|songs, daily conversations, arabic movies, comedy shows||books, news channels, documentaries, academic and official papers, school texts...etc|
How Different Are Dialects From Modern Standard Arabic?
Every native Arabic speaker will tell you that their dialect is the closest to the Modern Standard Arabic. But the truth is, the majority of the dialects are different from Modern Standard Arabic with some dialects being closer to Modern Standard Arabic; while others are very different from Modern Standard Arabic. The map below indicates the geographical distribution of Arabic dialects.
Egypt has the largest population of Arabic speakers among all the Arabic speaking countries, which is around 90 million people. Thus, the Egyptian Arabic will be the only one used as a comparison in this article. Egyptian Arabic is also the most widely-spoken dialect in the Arab world, and the majority of the Arabs understand it because Egyptian movies and songs are very popular. Many famous Arab singers who are not from Egypt often sing in Egyptian Arabic as well.
|English||Standard Arabic||Egytian dialect|
|Brazil is a very big country||البْرَازِيلُ بَلَدٌ كَبِيرٌ جِدًا. Al barazilu baladun kabirun jiddan.||البَرَازِيلْ بَلَدْ كِبيرَة قَوي. Al barazil balad kbira awi.|
|Diamonds are not cheap.||الْأَلْمَاسُ لَيْسَ رَخِيصاً. Al almasu laisa raxisan.||الألمَاظْ مِشْ رِخيصْ. Al almaz mish rxis|
|What does this word mean?||مَاذَا تَعْنِي هَذِهِ الْكَلِمَةُ؟ Maza ta'ni hazihil kalima?||الكِلْمَة دِي مَعْنَاهَا إيه؟ Al kilma di ma'naha ey?|
Note: you will need many more examples to truly see the difference, since some sentences are similar while others look very different.
It’s not hard to notice some differences between Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic from the table above, and more will be discussed later on in the article. The dialects are generally the simplified versions of the Modern Standard Arabic.
Why don’t you use Modern Standard Arabic instead of your dialect?
Because dialects are more simplified, feel much fresher and sound better. The Modern Standard Arabic sounds too official, too strict and too old.
Since the Modern Standard Arabic is the official language used in schools, official papers, news, and many other formal settings, almost every Arab is able to understand and communicate using Modern Standard Arabic. A friend of mine, whose mother tongue is Chinese, studied the Arabic language in university. He only learned Modern Standard Arabic, but he had no problem communicating with his Arab friends. The only problem was he couldn’t understand them well when they started talking to each other in different dialects.
People are able to communicate in Modern Standard Arabic from an early age. A good proof of this is even children can understand the cartoons, animations, and children songs which are all made in Modern Standard Arabic.
“Detective Conan Opening” in Modern Standard Arabic:
Differences and Similarities:
1. Words that are different and unique to each dialect
Each dialect has some words that don’t mean anything in Standard Arabic. Learning these words will greatly improve your dialect abilities since some of these unique words share the same meaning in more than one dialects.
Examples of some unique words:
|English||Egyptian Arabic||Standard Arabic|
|Today||النَهَارْدَة an naharda||اليَوْمَ alyaum|
|What||إيه e||مَا maa|
|Yes||أيوَة aywa||نَعَمْ Na'm|
|This||ده da||هَذَا haazaa|
|Good||كُوَيِّسْ kuayyes||جَيِّد jayyed|
This might be the most difficult part but also the key to learning the dialect because these unique words are different from Modern Standard Arabic; so this is the key to learning the dialect.
2. Words that look different but have meanings in Modern Standard Arabic.
Many dialect words look different when compared to Modern Standard Arabic. However, if your Modern Standard Arabic is good enough, then you can quickly guess the meaning of those words! Take a look at a few examples below:
|Friend||صاحِب saheb||صَديق sadiq||"Saheb" means companion in Standard Arabic|
|Very||قَوي qawi||جِداً jiddan||"Qawi" means strong in Standard Arabic, it makes sense.|
|Work||شُغل shoghl||عَمَل 'amal||"Shogl" means occupancy, occupation and job.|
This is why having knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic is important. If you know Modern Standard Arabic very well, then learning a new dialect would be a lot easier for you, since you can easily see the origin of the word even if it’s used in a slightly different occasion.
3. Loanwords from other languages
Dialects normally contain plenty of loanwords from different languages, such that from the neighboring languages or languages that they spoke before Arabic. For example, Egyptian dialect is heavily influenced by the Coptic language. Below are two examples of loanwords from different languages:
Loanword from English
|English||Standard Arabic||Egyptian Dialect||Origin- English|
|Police||شرطة shurta||بوليس bolis||police|
Loanword from Turkish
|English||Standard Arabic||Egyptian Dialect||Origin- Turkish|
|Room||غرفة ghurfa||اوضة auza||oda|
The most effective way to learn Arabic
If you’re planning to learn Arabic, and you’re willing to dedicate a good amount of time and efforts to master the language, this is the most effective way to get the best of Arabic language:
Always start from Standard Arabic to learn the root of the Arabic language. Standard Arabic should always be your main priority and focus, but also spend some time to familiarize yourself with a dialect.
It’s ideal to spend 80% of your focus on Standard Arabic and 20% on a dialect. This way you can find the common words and some differences between them. Modern Standard Arabic will always be your stronger language, and you’ll be able to communicate with the Arabs in Modern Standard Arabic, understand their dialects while enjoying every bit of Arabic language and culture.
Why Learn A Dialect When Everyone Can Communicate In Standard Arabic?
The benefit of learning a dialect is learning the simplified version of Modern Standard Arabic. Arabic grammar isn’t easy. I’ve noticed that even native speakers sometimes make mistakes using Standard Arabic. That’s when the dialects come in: they’re easier to use, easier to learn, and sometimes have easier pronunciations.
So, if you’re planning on learning Arabic, should you learn Standard Arabic or just a dialect of a certain country? A native speaker will suggest that you learn a dialect only if you plan to only visit an Arabic country and stay there for a short time. If you just want to talk to local people, ask for prices, and get around, picking up a dialect is the way to go. Moreover, in situations where you don’t have time to study Modern Standard Arabic, learning a dialect is a shortcut to the world of the Arabic language.
While learning the Modern Standard Arabic, you can compare the words that you learn in a dialect (for example, Egyptian Arabic) after familiarizing yourself with the dialect. What you’ll find is that the majority of the words are still pronounced the same as the Modern Standard Arabic.
Recommended Learning Resources
For Modern Standard Arabic, you can find plenty of dubbed Japanese cartoons. They are a great source of learning Standard Arabic, since the language they use is clear, easy to understand, and most of all, fun to watch.
Also, there are plenty of stories that are translated into the Arabic language. In fact, all the books are written in Standard Arabic. You can choose the ones you’re already familiar with – this way you can guess the meaning of the sentences as well.
Another great option is watching your favorite Hollywood movies with Arabic subtitles! You can easily find subtitles for almost any popular movies, and use the subtitles to practice your reading skills. As your Standard Arabic improves, you can start watching news channels in Arabic. In addition, many great documentaries dubbed into the Arabic language are easily accessible in almost any topic.
As for resources that help you learn dialects, always consider your Arab friends as your first source. And if you can’t find any Arab friends around you, songs are an excellent alternative. There are thousands of songs in the Arabic language, and almost all of them are sung in dialects! Listen to Arabic songs and find their lyrics online – singing along and being able to understand the beautiful lyrics is one of the greatest things about learning Arabic. Moreover, there are many Arabic local movies, especially Egyptian movies and dramas. How effective are these learning resources? I have friends who can speak fluent Egyptian Arabic without ever having been to Egypt! They only watched Egyptian movies and dramas all the time.
Consistent Language Training to Keep You on Track
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Article by: Imadeddin Mahdi Fatah, Linguist