Which Dialect of Arabic Should You Learn?

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There are quite a few dialects of Arabic. The question is: which dialect of Arabic should you learn? 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 to know it. 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.

Egyptian Arabic

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 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

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.

Sudanese Arabic

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).

Levantine Arabic

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).

The others

Apart from that, there are a lot of other dialects such as Iraqi Arabic, Najd Arabic, Hejazi 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.

P.S. Once you actually start learning Arabic, there’s a great chance you’ll find our Arabic verb conjugator useful – it can conjugate thousands of verbs and gives you lots of examples. Give it a try, and I’d sugest also bookmaring it for future use!

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61 comments

  1. Thanks for the post. I'm interested in learning Arabic sometime in the future, but didn't realize the different varieties. Personally, I'd go for the most widely understood dialect.

  2. I am not that familiar with Arabic , but I would never say that it could be indifferent to me…I communicate regularly with a person from Egypt who is learning Greek. We have kinda of lessons. So, when the conversation came to Arabic she told once that she could teach me the Egyptian dialect which is the most powerful and recognisable …So I would agree definitely with you the one should learn for his first steps the standard and the Egyptian version.
    Nice post and very clarifying …

  3. Most singers from around the Arab world sing their hits in Egyptian Arabic and then other songs in their own dialect. Egypt is the biggest market for music, and you'll find Lebanese, Syrian, even Gulf singers singing in Egyptian Arabic.

    I disagree about books and newspapers in Egyptian Arabic, nearly all literature is in MSA and Egyptian literature would be sometimes considered with disdain and something of artistic/creative/stylish choice rather than the standard. It doesn't really even have standardized spelling.

  4. Yeah, I agree with you. I guess it was a bit too bold a statement to say that that many books are in EA thus I edited it out to be on the safe side. Thanks

  5. Hello,
    My impression and experience with Arabs from the Gulf, Egypt, is that they understand Levantine Arabic very well. I have only been using 70 lessons of Pimsleur Eastern (Levantine) Arabic out of 90, and have worked on Linguaphone's MSA, but what I speak (honestly I can't call that speak, but I communicate) is Syrian (the one taught in Pimsleur is Syrian rather than Lebanese). My Gulf Arab contacts invariably ask wether I'm lebanese, and understand very well. They quickly understand I'm not Lebanese when I fail to understand them or elaborate more complicated sentences of course .
    I also notice that an egyptian and a lebanese who work with me understand each other pretty well and understand and are understood by Arabs from everywhere else except from Morocco and Algeria (except educated people who learnt Classic Arabic).

    My 2 cents: Eastern Arabic is well understood and may be as much as egyptian. One good point is the terrific Pimsleur course if you can get it for cheaper than they sell it. You can get very efficient with few words and improve your vocabulary with Linguaphone's long Arabic course, and speak a mixt of Eastern Arabic and MSA that will sound funny but will be efficient with educated people. No conflict of interest !

  6. This is solid practical advice. Cheers. ;>

    As for Pimsleur, I did it for Greek because I couldn't find anything else but more and more I understand that I just can't stand the repetition. I guess it is good for learning the pronunciation, though but then again, pronunciation could be taught way more efficiently without resorting to learning all of this other vocabulary.

  7. The first 'dialect' of Arabic I plan to learn is Maltese, as I can already read Persian and I'm curious whether the two combined will give a kind of instinctual knowledge of MSA without having to expend much effort. Plus I like the idea of a language that straddles two unrelated yet influential branches (Semitic + Romance).

  8. I think you wrote about that somewhere. The problem with Maltese is in learning resources, plus I heard very few people speak it in Malta. Otherwise it seems like a good choice.

  9. Nice summary.. I ask this question to myself quite often and is one of the biggest hurdles in beginning the Arabic adventure. I started sampling Egyptian since I was lead to believe that it most 'common'.. then I started playing football with a lot of Sudanese.. and now I have several Saudi friends but my fascination is still with Morocco, so… the dilemma is still there. I just wish more materials existed for dialectal varieties so we learners could get some more direction.

  10. if u wanna be a muslim and read the Quran, learn Classical Arabic !! otherwise, Egyptian is the easiest!

  11. If a man like me want to learn Arabic language because I want know more about Arabic culture and about Islam.
    which dialect of Arabic should I learn.

  12. I live in Malta and it’s very widely spoken, I learnt it and eurotalk do a very good package. Its very popular in everyday use and is also spoken in Australia (introduced to schools for learning and with the Maltese who moved to Australia) it also has a lot of speakers in Tunis too’ it took me about 6 moths to learn and made picking up classic Arabic very easy.

  13. I like how you paralleled the classical arabic to latin, but I disagree with the dialects ranking. You forgot to consider the power of media, which is invaded by Egyptian followed by Levantine (Syrian and Lebanese). This means that all arabs understand both dialects perfectly. The same is not applicable for any of the other dialects you mentioned in your article, especially not magrebian or sudanese arabic :)

  14. Nice post, as a native arabic (Levantine) speaker my advice is that if you have to learn only 1 dialect then definitely go with the standard arabic (or as you called it MSA) because practically all arabs including the none-educated would understand it, plus it is commonly used in the media, and as someone else mentioned lavantine is well understood everywhere except  in the Maghreb. Egyptian is well understood pretty much everywhere, however, if you speak ANY dialect you will be able to effectively communicate pretty much anywhere in the arab world, so it is not like if you speak egyptians then you will be able to communicate with more people, it is just it is better understood, and the differences between dialects is less than the differences between say french, italian …etc.

  15. Hmm, are you sure people really understand Levantine Arabic? I heard Egyptian was where it’s at…

  16. I am positive. The Levantine Arabic (especially Syrian) is the closest to the classical Arabic with adequate pronunciation of all letters and use of words that are closest to the classical language… but again, Egyptian is the most popular so everyone understands it :)
    Maghreb countries use much foreign vocab and “arabised” words that are uncommon to the remaining arab world. Gulf nationals also have their own vocab and non conventional pronunciation.. etc.

  17. quick question if i want to learn lebanese only should i first learn modern standard arabic or can i only learn lebanese and if so do you have a website you recommend? I seen words without the numbers in them and i have seen the same words spelled with numbers in them that is where i get confused at as well as not hearing the pronunciation. 

  18. Here In Malta, we do not speak a dialect of arabic, we speak Maltese, which is a seperate language of Semitic origin mixed with a large dose of Romance and lately Anglo-Saxon. It is the official (together with English) and national language of Malta. Contrary to what Linas has argued below, it is very widely spoken in Malta and is the majority language.
    One can say that Maltese is 40% from Arabic, 40% from Romance, 20% from Anglo-Saxon. It is a nice mix of Semitic with Indo-European.

  19. >
    Here In Malta, we do not speak a dialect of arabic, we speak Maltese,  

    Agreed, which is why I put the word dialect in quotes. I have no doubt that Maltese would be claimed as a dialect if it were not an independent country (let’s say it somehow ended up as an island belonging to Tunisia) even if it were more or less exactly the same, in spite of being very hard to understand for a speaker of MSA.

    From the point of view of a student though, Maltese is a good ‘dialect’ to choose. Keep in mind though that when I use the word dialect (even unseriously) I do not mean to belittle a lesser-spoken language: if Maltese is a dialect of MSA then MSA is also a dialect of Maltese; Afrikaans is a dialect of Dutch and Dutch is a dialect of Afrikaans. To be more precise though and avoid misunderstanding I should probably use the term regional variant.

  20. My parents are planning on going to perform Hajj next year. Which pimsleur course would be most useful here?

  21. In Mecca, people speak the Hejazi dialect, for which there is no pimsleur course. There is however an FSI course for Saudi Hejazi arabic which works very wrll. Also, Classical/MSA should work in that area, although if your parents’ plan is conversing with locals, I suggest learning Hejazi Arabic, with the FSI course, available free off the internet.

  22. I live in Jordan. My recommendation is Egyptian, almost everyone will understand you, and you will understand a great percentage from the Arab population. Then followed by Levant, again almost everyone will understand you, but you will understand a few amount of people.

    MSA everyone will understand you, but you will not understand anyone(unless they know they should speak in MSA for you to understand), and by the way you won’t sound cool when you speak it on the streets, you will actually sound funny and just awkward.

    Maghrebi, Gulf, and Sudanese, a lot of Arabs won’t understand you. Im an Arab and I don’t understand Maghrebi at all. Gulf I had a hard time understanding it when I went to Qatar, but now I can.

  23. I am Maltese, and you are so Wrong. Maltese is not a dialect of Arabic ,but a seperate semitic language on its own. Its the only semitic language written in the latin alphabet. Although its base is semitic we have various influences from Sicilian, French and Italian

  24. Who said that few people speak it in Malta |  Its the national language. It is also spoken by many Maltese migrants around the world such as Australia, Canada, USA, UK and other European countries. 

  25. Like I said, I am writing from the point of view of a student, for whom learning Maltese is as useful for understanding MSA as a variant of Arabic. See my other comment below.

    Also, please see this article for the usage of scare quotes. There is a reason why I wrote ‘dialect’, and not dialect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scare_quotes

  26. You can just go with Lebanese directly in that case. Unfortunately I don’t have any websites to recommend.

  27. Hi I am wondering if you can help me with this question: Which country does speak MSA without any accent?

  28. Hello, levantine is not only in syria and lebanon – it is also in Jordan and palestine! and it is the pirest arabic ( jordanian dialect is the most pure and very close to (MSA)

  29. well, I am thankfull to the authour, but I am sure he should be more accurate about the information he is publishing, because not everything is true, and you can say egyptain Arabic or Gulf or maghrebei, you have to say that those are dialects ( Arabic is Arabic)

  30. Egyptian is fairly the most common Arabic because of the media. for example i have been to syria and lebnon and they perfectly understand my egyptian arabic but i don’t understand some of theirs

  31. Really?

    I don’t think so- it’s probably the closest dialect to English- the grammar is influenced by Turkish and has nothing to do with MSA.
      

  32. hi there i am thinking of trying the pimsleur course and am curious as to what arabic i would be able to speak with someone from qatar who can also speak sudanese arabic?? thank you!!!

  33. sorry i forgot to put that they only offer eastern arabic and egyptain arabic

  34. Speak to a linguist, they will clarify that Maltese is a dialect of Arabic

  35. Dialect > “A particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”

    My view as a native Maltese speaker is that I would not go as far as stating that Maltese is a full blown dialect of Arabic. Although it is true that a vey large percentage finds its roots to Arabic. It is said that a Maltese speaker would understand more word of Aramaic. I find it hard to understand Arab people speaking and only manage to grasp a few words (and numbers). On the other hand  it is said that Arabs would probably find it easier to understand some Maltese.
    The Maltese language through the millenian has become a concotination of several languages as was stated above by Djramon. That is Italian (a very good % of it), French, English. Maltese is written in the latin Alphabet. I believe modern Maltese is evolving closer to these languages, however you will find areas (such as Gozo) where words used would be closer to Arabic.

    I do not think that learning Maltese will help in any great extent gaining knowledge of standard Arabic, this is of course my opinion, on the basis of how it is written and also because of the influences of Latin based languages. I would just learn standard Arabic.

    In conclusion that Maltese was influenced by Arabic and other Latin based languages in time gone by which the language has phonetically kept is of course a fact but I also believe that in the evolution of Maltese and modern Maltese this is not the case anymore in terms of being affected by Arabic, in the sense that, new words are more affected by other southern/mid European languages such as Italian, French, English. Keep in mind that in the last hundreds of years Malta/Melita was colonised/conqured by the Arabs, the Roman Empire, the Knights of St. John, the French, the Bristish, thus the latter languages used by those cultures had the latest influence in the Maltese language. Italian has had (and still has) a strong influence on the Maltese culture, customs and language as does Britain. Not only on the language and customs itself but also the close ties as well.
    Lastly, would you learn Italian to learn Maltese or vice-versa? I don’t think so, although phonetically you’d find many similarities, I’d still recommend that you go straight to the language you’re interested to learn and understand/talk well.

  36. The easiest is Palestinian. Its what we Arabs call “white language”. Its easy to learn and pronounce. With all due respect to other Arabic dialects, but some of them r considered funny and ppl will make fun of u when u speak them. And by the way, in each Arab country there r many sub-dialects.

    Gulf and Moroccan are VERY difficult to pronounce. 

  37. Maltese is a descendant of an Arabic dialect (Siculo-Arabic; the Arabic spoken in Sicily and Malta around 1000). It borrows a large amount of its vocabulary from European (especially Romance) languages. However, I would contend that technically it is still a dialect. People only classify it a language for political reasons. For instance, Sicilian is classified as a dialect of Italian, however, it existed before Italian and is truthfully a language. If Maltese isn’t a dialect, then neither is Egyptian, Levantine, Maghrebi (etc) — as the dialects of Arabic were coming into existence at the same time as “Classical Arabic” (post-koine).

  38. ana andi fikrah..
    ana mussri bes marafsh lew arabi betah lebnan wah arabi betah muss mish zey eachother?
    can Lebanese and Egyptians understand eachother?? shookrun :)
    because I want to learn Lebanese Arabic but my family is Egyptian. will we still understand eachother?

  39. If you find websites i would be really grateful!

    WAIT!
    Your really name is Linas… im going to write this down. Ha ha ha…….

  40. i mostly visit saudi arabia and would like to be able to communicate with the locals there. But also if i ever travel to any other arab country i would like to be able to communicate and understand arabic there too – so what arabic should i learn ?

  41. As a Syrian, the best one is ours not to sound proud but it is easy and understood generally everywhere you go and loved by people. Lebanese is very similar but a man speaking it would sound gay. Palestinian is harsh to hear, engyptian is ok but you will sound like a comedian (usually used in comedy movies), gulf and moroccan accents are terrible!

  42. I speak Palestinian fellahin Arabic and it’s flow is similar to info Arian languages like Persian and Kurdish and Altaic languages like Turkish, because 80% of rural Palestinians came from Kurdistan thousands of years ago and even some descended from Kurds that came with saladin.

  43. Katia, I am interested in learning the Syrian dialect. Ideally, i would have like to travel to Syria for immersion training purposes, however, it seems that is just not possible at the moment. Maybe you can tell me where else i could go to learn this dialect (or something similar) at the moment? I have heard that Lebanese is similar but then people often say that people prefer to speak english or french in Lebanon (especially with english people). Any thoughts on this would be welcome. Thanks

  44. Such a great article! I just have few notices according to Levantine Arabic. Levant countries are Lebanon, Palestine + Israel, Syria and Jordan. North Levant, the accent there has nothing to do with Gulf accents, and also Palestinian accent has nothing to do with Egyptian accent, maybe only the ones who live in boards with them, such as Gaza, but really only the ones who live in boards, and only similar by very little! Thanks!

  45. I want to converse with most arabs so egyption, but i love saudi arabia and uae so gulf. Which one???

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