One of the most common questions asked by learners of Arabic is ‘should I learn Modern Standard Arabic or a dialect first’?
Dialect of course refers to any of the many local varieties of Arabic spoken across North Africa and the Middle East, and Modern Standard Arabic is the variety you see and hear when you turn on the news or read a newspaper.
This question is often asked by people who want to be conversational in Arabic too. We’re not talking about students of politics or religion here necessarily.
Just people who want to travel and converse to people.
So let’s clear this up.
Modern Standard Arabic is not the lingua franca of the Arab world
Perhaps in the realm of politics but certainly not for ordinary people.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there.
A lot of language products and courses market Modern Standard Arabic as the lingua franca (bridge or vehicular language) of the Middle East and North Africa.
They teach MSA as a ‘conversational’ language that will make communication between all Arabic-speaking people possible.
It’s not accurate at all.
First of all, MSA is not a conversational language. There’s not a single human being on the face of this planet who speaks it as a native language or uses it in day-to-day affairs.
It’s what’s called a prestige language.
Arabs learn MSA in school so they can read and write, understand and participate in politics, media and so on but you’ll be hard pressed finding a single person anywhere who speaks it as a conversational second language.
Don’t think of it as a neutral dialect either.
It’s a modernized form of a language that’s 1300 years old, full of archaic vocabulary and grammatically more complex than any modern spoken dialect.
When native Arabic speakers from two different countries speak to one another, what often happens when there’s a communication barrier is one of them will adapt his or her dialect to the dialect of the other speaker.
For example, here in Egypt I often encounter Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis who ‘Egyptianize’ their speech somewhat while they’re living here to get by.
What you don’t see however are people walking around speaking Modern Standard Arabic to one another as a bridge language.
Learn Modern Standard Arabic to be widely understood but don’t expect to understand anyone
… or for your conversations not to be completely awkward.
Modern Standard Arabic and the spoken dialects are so vastly different in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation that a person who is totally ‘fluent’ in MSA may not have any idea what a person’s saying in a local dialect.
I’ve witnessed this personally many times here in the Middle East with advanced students of MSA who can’t hold a simple conversation with an average Joe on the street.
Sure, you’ll be understood by many people (though not all!) when you speak but don’t expect to understand the reply.
What that means is that someone who spends all that time in a university back home studying Modern Standard Arabic and then moves to the Middle East is effectively starting a new language all over again.
If your original goal was to become conversationally fluent in Arabic then it makes those years feel like a waste of time.
Now of course, it’s not fair to say that it is a complete waste – you’re certainly much better off than a person with zero Arabic study if you’ve studied MSA but why waste time learning a language that’s so incredibly different if your only goal is to become conversational?
Get started on a spoken dialect from day one!
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart
This is a fairly well-known quote by Nelson Mandela and so relevant on the issue of Arabic dialects.
If you want to really, truly connect with people on their level then you need to speak their heart language – their mother tongue.
In the case of MSA, it’s nobody’s mother tongue.
Choose a spoken dialect, stick with it and see it through to fluency.
You’ll have a much better time communicating with people of other dialects than you would if you tried doing it through MSA.
Donovan Nagel is a language educator, blogger and translator with years of travel and language learning experience.