Which Dialect of Arabic Should You Learn?

Attention: try out this tool for conjugation of Arabic verbs. Moreover, if you want to start learning some Arabic, we recommend this fantastic Arabic Alphabet Course by Carl Kenner, and also our free Arabic Alphabet Training Tool, largely modeled after that course. Moreover, a personal recommendation: an entirely free Introduction to Arabic course by the Language Transfer – try them out, they’re great! Finally, there is also the Interlinear translation of Sindbad from Arabic to English which you can read while learning!

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. Hello

    My name is Adil and I am a French-born Moroccan dude. I appreciate your post but actually a lot of information aren’t correct. First, MSA is not Classical Arabic, even though some people want to convince themselves about it. Classic Arabic is the language of the Quran and Arabic Bible, it has a very conservative grammary (you can compare it to Old English with the “Thou” and “Thee”) which is centuries old while MSA was formated around the 19th century by grammarians and writers in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon.

    Second of all, Maghrebi Arabic is a group of dialects, if you compare Moroccan with Tunisian is pretty much as comparing Lebanese with Egyptian. Libyan is actually a middle-ground between Maghrebi and Gulf dialects. The two are related to each other, but the pruniciation, the vocabulary is completely different. The only feature that the Maghrebi dialects share together have some Berber (Amazigh) elements incorporated in their dialects, specially the prununciation and some words. But even in one country such as Morocco, you have many dialects which can be quite difficult to understand for a person from Casablanca for instance, like the Jabali dialect (spoken in Tangiers, Tetuan, etc..), the Hassani dialect (spoken in the Sahara desert), Eastern dialect (spoken in Oujda and near the Algerian border), etc…

    As a matter of fact, Moroccan (and all the dialects) are also written. If you read a play, a comic, a poem, an add, etc.. you will likely read it in dialect rather than MSA. For the borrowing of French and Spanish word, you have the same in Lebanon where they borrow a lot of French words as well (because of French protectorate) and in the Gulf and in Jordan where they also incorporate a lot of English words. But the pure Moroccan dialect has no influence of any Western words, you can say ” sayara” instead of “tomobile” (car) if you want. The reason why many middle-eastern (and not all of them) do not understand Maghrebi is because these dialects aren’t well represented in the Pan-Arab media, unlike Egyptian or Lebanese. But for the middle-eastern who live in France, Canada, UK and other European countries, they usually have no problem understanding and even speaking the Moroccan dialect because they get to interact with Moroccans. But obviously for someone who is used to hear only Egyptian and Lebanese, Moroccan is going to sound like a foreign language. But the truth is that any Arabic speaker can integrate and understand any Arabic dialect if he wants.

    About your analogy : If MSA is Latin, Italian would Lebanese/Syrian and Palestinian, Egyptian would be Spanish, Maghrebi would be French and Gulf would be Portuguese.

    Cheers

  2. I totally agree with you when you said that egyptian arabic is one of the two easiest dialects in Arabic , not because im actually an egyptian , but because i have some algerian friends who talks really awkward arabic , but they understand a hundred per cent when i talk my egyptian dialect .

  3. Due to long experience studying and living in the Arab World, I can assure you that Yemeni Arabic is the closest to classical Arabic. Neither Syrian not Egyptian are closer to MSA or CA than Yemeni versions of Arabic.

  4. Hello,
    I have some questions. My son went to a summer enriching program in the US and took five weeks of Arabic, and he really like it. He returned to Venezuela a month ago, and he decided to pursue his Arabic learning. Finding a teacher here has been very difficult. There are no Arabic courses. Finally, we contacted a young man who just arrived from Syria ( Alep) four months ago, and who hardly speaks Spanish. He started teaching Arabic to my son ( twice a week), and it seems to me that he is mixing the Arabic spoken in his city, and some Standard Arabic. He says that he is a Christian, and that some of his expressions are different from those used my Muslims. He would like to use his Arabic in the future ( Academic purposes, job, travelling…), and I wonder if what he is learning will be useful for his purposes.

  5. Hello,

    My son went to a summer enriching program in the US and took five weeks of Arabic, and he really liked it. He returned to Venezuela a month ago, and he decided to pursue his Arabic learning. Finding a teacher here has been very difficult. There are no Arabic courses. Finally, we contacted a young man who just arrived from Syria ( Alep) four months ago, and who hardly speaks Spanish. He started teaching Arabic to my son ( twice a week), and it seems to me that he is mixing the Arabic spoken in his city, and some Standard Arabic. He says that he is a Christian, and that some of his expressions are different from those used my Muslims. My son would like to use his Arabic in the future ( Academic purposes, job, travelling…), and I wonder if what he is learning will be useful for his purposes. Besides, he is really interested in taking an Arabic course next summer. He is 17, and we wonder where should he go. Because he speaks French, we were considering sending him to Rabat, to take an Arabic course( Standard Arabic, and Moroccan dialect), and stay with a host family. I do not if you consider that the dialect of this country will be very different from what he is learning. Where do you think he should go to improve his Arabic? Lebanon is out of the question since the Syria situation is very complicated.

  6. Hello Katia,
    My son is studying Arabic. He started doing a summer course in the US, and back in Venezuela we contacted two Syrian gentlemen,a nd they are coming twice a week to teach him. Since the situation in Syria is so complicated, where do you suggest he could go to take an intensive course next year?? We were thinking Rabat, but definetely the dialect is very different. What do you think?

  7. Your son’s tutor is Syrian, so he speaks Levantine Arabic, mixed with MSA
    No need to worry then

  8. Lebanese don’t prefer to speak English. We just do that for your own convenience. We speak MSA quite well! And unlike what katia has said you wouldn’t sound gay if you used our accent :)

  9. Most Arabic books are printed in Lebanon (google it). The Lebanese dialect is the best and almost every Arab I met understands me quite well!

  10. Lebanese understand the Egyptian dialect quite well!

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