There are quite a few dialects of Arabic. The question is: which dialect of Arabic should you learn if you want to communicate with as many Arabic speakers as you can? I attempt to give a summary of this question.
Origins of Arabic: Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic
There is one original Arabic used in the Qur’an and called Classical Arabic (CA). It is the archaic form that was spoken from around VII to IX centuries.
Then there is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This language is the same as Classical Arabic except it is adapted in some ways and geared more towards casual speech. For example, it has words that Classical Arabic does not, such as فيلم (film) because obviously they did not have films a thousand years ago when Classical Arabic was spoken. The forms of Classical Arabic are said to be more poetic and “old”, a rough analogy between CA versus MSA would be Shakespearean English and Modern English, except the differences are bigger in English than in the two types of Arabic. Arabic speakers sometimes do not even distinguish between the two languages and sometimes do not make the distinction.
Now the thing is: nobody speaks neither Classical Arabic nor Modern Standard Arabic in their standard everyday lives anymore: that would be like encountering somebody in Europe speaking Latin. People do speak Latin in Europe, though, except Latin has transformed into variants which are better known as Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian. So has Classical Arabic transformed into dialects about the major of which we will now learn.
Before that, here is the nice thing: everybody speaks “their Latin” in the Arab world because they learn it at school. That is to say, children learn Modern Standard Arabic (or Classical Arabic – as it has been said, Arabs often don’t even make the distinction) at school and all educated people throughout the whole Arab world are supposed. They do learn this language because the Qur’an was written in it. That means that though, chances are, you could not communicate with Italians and French using the original Latin language, you can with Arabs
Current dialects of Arabic
So when we know what people don’t speak in their everyday lives, let’s look at what they do speak. Here the reality is that there are many dialects and sub-dialects and trying to explain and compare them all in a blogpost wouldn’t do them any justice. That’s is why I am just going to list the main large groups of Arabic dialects.
This form of Arabic is spoken in Egypt, of course. Now the good part is that about 20% of all Arabic speakers are speakers of Egyptian Arabic. The other good part is that Egyptian Arabic is the second standard Arabic of these times. Think of it this way: if Latin is spoken as a common language and known among the educated Arabs, then Egyptian Arabic is somewhat like English in the West now.
This is because a lot of songs, shows, etc. are produced in Egyptian Arabic and also a lot of Arab speakers get to see Egyptian TV (and now presumably see the Internet) thus chances are people might be used to the Egyptian dialect and understand it. Some people suggest that anyone who watches TV in the Arab world will be able to understand you if you speak Egyptian Arabic. That is why a lot of people, when they want to learn Arabic, go with Egyptian Arabic.
Maghrebi is a dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. This is probably the second big group of Arabic and it is sometimes split into smaller groups such as Moroccan, Algerian etc. Broadly speaking, this Arabic could be characterized by that it has followed a lot of Western words due to its close contact with Western countries. Speaking about speaking, this dialect is only used for speaking because most writing is done in Modern Standard Arabic.
Gulf Arabic is a dialect spoken in Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. It has been argued that this dialect is the one that is the most similar to Modern Standard Arabic (and thus to Classical Arabic too) although big differences between the two do exist. To give you a rough analogy, If MSA is Latin, Egyptian is English, then Maghrebi is German and Gulf is Italian (it’s a good analogy too because of its relatively greater similarity to Classical Arabic). It works fine in the region and sometimes in other places but a lot of people might still not understand you.
Then there is Sudanese Arabic which is spoken in Sudan. It has a fair amount of speakers because Sudan has many inhabitants too. Sudanese Arabic is said to have been influenced on a large part by local African languages in the territory of Sudan thus the language has an Arabic-African flavor to it. It could be equated to Brazilian Portuguese (because it has native influences from other languages).
The last one that I want to mention here is Levantine Arabic. It is spoken in the Levant region, thus in Lebanon, Cyprus, Palestine, Israel and a few other places in that region (the region also includes the Gaza strip). It could be devided into Northern (Syrian, Lebanese) and Southern (mostly Palestinian) dialects where the Northern one is more related to the Gulf Arabic and the Southern one is related to the Egyptian Arabic. Once again, this Arabic is not really spoken outside of the region so it could be equated to Norwegian (because it has two dialects too).
Apart from that, there are a lot of other dialects such as Iraqi Arabic, Najd Arabic, Hezaji Arabic (arguably all of these more similar to Gulf Arabic), Yemeni Arabic (which is known to be very convservative too and it probably outdoes Gulf Arabic in its similarity to Classical Arabic) and a lot of other dialects that exist.
So… which dialect of Arabic should I learn?
The answer is mainly threefold…You should learn:
- Modern Standard Arabic – if you want to read the Qur’an, be able to read state documents, books and sound cool when you ask questions when you travel
- Egyptian Arabic – if you want to be mostly understood in the Arab world and be able to watch Arab TV, understand the lyrics in their music and so on
- Some specific dialect of Arabic – if you know specifically where you will go and live
This does not, however, take other factors such as difficulty of the language or easiness to learn (due to the amount of learning resources or the degree of the ability to immerse yourself, for example) into account. I would say that MSA is archaic thus it should be harder, Egyptian Arabic should have a lot of resources but a fair amount of tourists too (same for Moroccan Arabic) and specific dialects might be the easiest to immerse yourself into if you are there but might have the least resources to learn. These are just guesses, however, and you should investigate further before learning any of the dialects.
I tried to give a fair presentation of the Arabic language. here If I got something wrong or you have something to add to this, let us know in the comments.