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Learn Modern Standard Arabic or dialect first? I say dialect and here’s why [video]

| 61 comments | Category: particular languages

Here you go – the first of several video updates from Egypt itself! As always, activate Youtube’s captions option to view subtitles as this is in Arabic, and I hope you like the new intro!

In this video, I met up with Nevein, an Egyptian who works for British Airways. Since she has travelled a good bit to other Arabic speaking countries, I figured we might as well talk about that – what exactly is “Arabic”? And how is Egyptian Arabic different, and how is it written?

Since I was only asking questions (and I probably should have prepared them better, since I was trying to think of good ones on the spot), this video isn’t the best one to showcase my normal spontaneous casual spoken level in the language, so I’ll make sure to have someone interview me before my time in Egypt is up, so you can hear me do more talking and hesitate much less (having to lead an interview is an extra distraction).

But for now, I’d rather let other people do most of the talking, especially in the cultural video updates! I prefer to share their stories while I’m here, rather than mine!

Modern Standard Arabic? I think not

Probably one of the most frequent comments I’ve received on my videos over the last months, usually from people in Arabic speaking countries that are not Egypt, or from elitist academics, all of whom ignored my travel-in-Egypt focus, has been “You should be learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)! It’s much better than dialect!”

Now that I’m actually using what I spent months preparing for, in the country itself, I can confirm that learning a dialect is far superior to learning MSA if you plan to speak the language. (Note that I’m not suggesting Egyptian dialect as superior; if I was going to any other country then its dialect would have been my focus)

If your goal is to use Arabic academically (or religiously) then by all means stick with MSA, as it’s the better choice for you.

But if you plan to make friends, buy things and haggle, travel, attempt to blend in and not get ripped off, watch a lot of TV such as comedy or soap operas, and even work in most jobs, then you’d be crazy to learn MSA first. Even the locals (a vast majority of them) do not speak it. They do indeed understand it, but you’d have to seriously and unrealistically restrict your interactions if you wanted a reply in MSA.

Let me say that again because it bears repeating: Most people in Arabic speaking countries do NOT speak Modern Standard Arabic. They ONLY speak dialect.

MSA’s use is for reading, for understanding religious matters, and for following very formal procedures or watching the news. (Although I’ve listened to some radio news in dialect).

The biggest myth that a lot of conversations with natives themselves has shown me to not be true, is that even Arabic speakers themselves do not use MSA when travelling to other countries.

It is not a “lingua franca” in practical use outside of formal settings, as you may think it could be. Nearly all Egyptians I’ve talked with have told me that they simply speak in their dialect, and muddle through (such as a Spanish speaker in Italy or Brazil would) or try to learn the local dialect, when travelling in other Arabic countries.

A world apart; shouldn’t even be called a dialect IMO

I use the word “dialect” because that’s what is commonly accepted, but I don’t like this word in this context. It’s a far cry from dialects as we know them in Europe, such as between my Irish dialect and other ones in English, or Rio Portuguese, or Colombian Spanish compared to other ones.

Generally speaking, these European style dialects are split offs that occurred in the last 500 years or less (and sometimes they incorporate features of a second language).

Modern Standard Arabic though, despite the name, is based entirely on Arabic from the Koran written in the 7th century.

The only major difference is vocabulary, since MSA incorporates new words to fit into the modern world. Grammatically and for most common words though, it’s essentially Arabic that existed over 1,300 years ago, preserved to this day because of the importance of understanding the Koran in its original form.

Despite no formal recognition of “dialects”, and despite teaching of Classical Arabic throughout the ages, the way people speak has indeed naturally evolved. It’s the same way that Latin, which would have been in use formally 2,000 years ago as we see it written even to this day, actually gave rise to vulgar Latin, which itself evolved into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese etc.

Effectively, what you are doing when learning MSA with hopes of travelling in the country, is almost as if you were studying Latin to travel in France or Italy.

Cases and completely different words

One key example is how different the grammar is, such as the use of cases (nominative, accusative etc.).

In MSA you add an -u to subjects of sentences, an -i if it’s affected by some prepositions and so on. (Latin also has such grammatical cases, whereas modern Romance languages pretty much never do.) So in MSA you have to constantly think whether a word is the subject, the object, or acted on by a preposition, or you will say it wrong.

This simply doesn’t apply in the Egyptian dialect (and other dialects from what I’m told). In the sentences, “The house is there”, “I put it in the house” or “I like this house”, house is always “bayt”, but would be “baytu“, “bayta” and “bayti” respectively in MSA.

Then there is a host of completely different vocabulary. “How” is “Izzay” in Egyptian Arabic, but “Kayf” in MSA. “Where” is “Fayn” in Egyptian Arabic, but “eyen” in MSA. Tomorrow is “bokra” in Egyptian Arabic, but “3′da” (where 3′ is a sound that doesn’t exist in European languages, mentioned in the video).

Many other basic words are totally different, or if they are similar or even written the same, the differences in vowel pronunciation, and use of particular consonants makes them almost seem like different words.

Words that have the letter ج in them pronounce it “j” (as in jam) in MSA, but a “g” (as in go) in Egyptian dialect (except some loan words and the like). Raag-il and Raajil (man) are pretty different!

Then like many languages, dialects are way more flexible in accepting loan words. Even though technically they should say Faransaewi and Ingilizy for French and English, I’ve noticed that young Egyptians (not older ones mind you) simply say European language names in English (“English”, “French”), and sprinkle heaps of English words into their sentences. You’ll hear that in the video above; this is not for my benefit, but how I’ve heard young Egyptians talking amongst one another.

And I’m told that countries like Morocco do the same a lot with French.

At times I’ve asked them for what the Arabic equivalent is of a very English word they just dropped into an Arabic sentence, and they don’t know!

Even a different writing system!

One of the biggest surprises is that Arabic script itself (which like any phonetic script, can be learned in an afternoon no hassle) is NOT used to represent Egyptian Arabic by many young people.

Text messages, emails, and sometimes even informal speeches are written using the same letters we use in European languages.

The problem is that Arabic script, while perfect for Classical and Modern Standard Arabic, is seriously lacking to accurately describe Egyptian Arabic and other “dialects”. Vowel sounds change, and sometimes a word may be pronounced the classical way, and sometimes it’s pronounced a more Egyptian way. You can show this much more efficiently in Latinized script.

As stated in the video, to replace certain sounds that don’t exist in European languages, you see numbers used a lot. Unfortunately, there is no standardization to this, so you will see it vary a lot depending on who is writing.  But a good overall view of how most people use it is described in this Wikipedia article.

“Languages” or “dialects”?

I hope I’ve emphasised that you really are dealing with different languages here. They are called dialects and not given any kind of official recognition as real languages mainly because each country prefers to have its official language as the one and only Arabic used in the Koran itself.

Anything else is “just a colloquial version, spoken in the street”, which is quite a huge dismissal when you consider Egypt’s population of 80 million, the vast majority of whom may never speak Modern Standard Arabic (even though they will indeed hear it regularly).

Challenging this status quo is none of my business (it’s for political, religious and a whole mess of other reasons that the official language is not the language most citizens of the country speak together), but as a language learner this lack of official status makes it really tricky to learn these languages… (ahem sorry, “dialects”), because there is a huge lack of useful learning material for them.

Most language learning material focuses on MSA. There are two reasons for this: firstly, because it is indeed the “official” language of the country you will visit (as unhelpful as that status may be for practical interaction with most of its citizens).

And secondly because it’s good for marketing to pitch to people that they are learning a language “almost 300 million people speak”, or the “5th most spoken language in the world by native speakers”. These numbers, while reflecting populations of the countries where MSA is official, are actually complete and utter rubbish. Arabic is NOT that big a language, because nobody (except perhaps professors) out of those hundreds of millions actually speaks MSA when out drinking tea with a friend, or spending time with their family, or ordering food etc.

If you wanted to sell a language learning course, it’s easier to make just one to cater to everyone and go with the flow that you’ll be fine using this one no matter where you go. Business-wise, it makes more sense because you’ll sell more copies and production costs will be much lower. But I still think it’s misleading to present MSA as a useful language to learn for travellers.

Then again, if you ask many natives what they think which is more useful between MSA and dialect, I know MSA would get nearly all the votes, because the sentiment of native speakers is that you should learn “proper” Arabic. It’s a sense of academic and religious devotion, rather than practical advice for communicating with people in the country.

It’s an academic language. Let’s call a spade a spade! If you are learning it for academic purposes, then of course most of what I say in this post is irrelevant to you (I’m a traveller, and learning something to speak with locals in the country will always be my bias when deciding how useful something is).

What to do?

OK, so after all that, what is a language learner to do? The point of this post isn’t to tell the world to abandon MSA. It is essential if you want to read anything (apart from emails and text messages, which will be in something like Franco-Arabic between many young people), and formal proceedings will take place in it.

Going back to the title of this post, my suggestion is simple: If you have a spoken priority (and let’s be honest, a lot of us simply don’t), learn a dialect FIRST. Then go on to MSA. Choose that dialect based on where you want to visit.

The grammar of dialects is much less complex in comparison to MSA, so you’ll be able to get into communication faster, and you’ll be able to have chats with anyone you may come across from that country (that includes online), rather than just with teachers who are experienced in speaking MSA. You’ll simply get into the language quicker.

And then when you are comfortable at this, when you go on to study MSA it will be much easier for you. You will already have a flow to speak it, and can get into reading complex texts and understanding formal discussions. Dialect can be a fantastic stepping stone towards MSA, because you can reach a confident spoken level and then everything you start reading is at least somewhat familiar.

I kind of attempted this myself, but to be honest, one of the biggest mistakes I made by far in this project was wasting my time on MSA materials in the early stages. I was using Assimil’s (French) course on MSA, and then tried alternative ones, and found that pretty much everything I was learning in all those courses was irrelevant to my spoken sessions. Most vocabulary and most grammar. I was effectively learning the wrong language.

While I reached a good stage in my first two months with mostly spoken sessions, my technique is generally to go back to study-mode in my final dash to fluency and tweak my grammar and do exercises and the like between spoken sessions so I can speak confidently without the mistakes I had before.

I haven’t ironed out those mistakes because I had no good material to help me do it, as I’ve had in countless other languages.

Hell, even Esperanto and Irish (Geailge) have more material to work with compared to Arabic dialects, and I went for the biggest dialect! It’s incredible when you consider the number of speakers involved.

My suggestions

If you have similar spoken priorities to me then…

1. What I did in my first two months was precisely what I’d suggest you try out yourselves too. This will get you to the stage of being able to converse with someone, but doing so with poor sentence structure and a bunch of grammar mistakes (that don’t hinder communication too much), like I was doing at my two month point.

Start by getting a phrase book, because these do indeed focus on dialect (the great thing is that they cover several dialects, not just Egyptian, so this will work if you are going elsewhere in the Arabic world), don’t distract you with Arabic script and are small enough to consume quickly. Lonely Planet do one for several dialects for instance. (If you speak French, I found Assimil’s de Poche to be very helpful).

And immediately from then, start getting very regular practice with native speakers just from the country you are going to, and make it clear that your priority is to learn the dialect, not MSA. I highly recommend italki (for either free exchanges, or paid lessons) because you can search per country there, rather than get “generic” Arabic lessons.

2. Use Romanized Arabic much more than Arabic script.

This is probably the most controversial piece of advice I’ll give that I know many will disagree on, but if you have a spoken focus, Arabic script is inefficient to represent the words of dialect, especially because of lack of most vowels shown.

So when you are making a note of vocabulary, pick one way to represent sounds not in English (such as in the Wikipedia link above), and learn it that way. If you write to your teacher, type a Romanized version.

All my flashcards in Anki where representing vocabulary using Romanized script rather than Arabic.

Do indeed learn Arabic script though! It’s just a few hours work (more on that in another post) and you are done. But initially, as a traveller you only need this for recognition, such as in signs and menus. Reading novels and newspapers can come later.

3. When you reach a comfortable conversational stage, but still with grammar mistakes, then see if you can find a good grammar explanation just about the dialect, and if possible one that is written in Romanized script so you can process the dialect more efficiently. Lacking this, see if you can find a good teacher that can train you with lots of grammar-focused exercises to do in your spare time, based on the biggest mistakes you are making.

Luckily I’ve finally come across a decent book that I’d recommend for people to try out after lots of spoken practice, and thanks to this I am finally tying up loose ends. It’s kind of technical, but is a huge help for me to speak correctly, so with a bit of practice I can get that final flow I need:

Kullu Tamam

(Literally means “Everything is OK”). It has some problems like an occasional typo, and it’s incredibly dry (no pictures, and the dialogues aren’t interesting) so I definitely can’t recommend it to absolute beginners. But it only discusses dialect, and does so using Romanized script. It gets into technical explanations of why certain things are said in certain ways.

I studied this for a couple of days while in Cairo, and got through it quick enough because of all the previous exposure and familiarity with most words and am now finally starting to speak correctly. I am still hesitating a lot as I think about how to process the words in the right way (and of course slip up occasionally), but luckily I am getting tonnes of practice every day and should reach a much more comfortable level within the next weeks.

A completely free resource, which is both a dictionary and a pretty detailed grammar explanation is Lisaan Masry. Make this your home page if you are intensively learning Arabic! There is also an Android app that lets you download the dictionary database offline, which has been a huge help for me out and about, as limited as it is.

I came across some other highly recommended books for beginner learners, that were indeed about Egyptian dialect, but they were almost always written in Arabic script and this will slow you down too much (both because of lack of familiarity with script to read through it efficiently, and because they don’t represent a lot of the sounds well enough). If you are a beginner don’t learn through a book written just in Arabic script.

With a spoken focus, you can get into reading later, and that’s more suited to an MSA focused approach anyway, because dialect is pretty much never written in script (I’m told that subtitles for children’s TV shows use it for instance).

4. Finally, when you are a confident speaker of the dialect, then start working on MSA. You should already know how to read out words, but get lots of practice to read faster, and learn alternative versions of words you already know that are likely to come up in texts.

By not learning them in parallel, but in a written-only context, you are less likely to mix things up, and will use the correct word when writing and the correct one when speaking dialect.

I’ve started reading online newspapers since I got to Egypt, and am glad I didn’t focus much on reading text in my initial months. I can already order food off menus and follow directions on signs, because I practised individual word reading of Arabic script throughout my learning period, but reading full texts that are effectively in the wrong language is best left until when you already know one of those languages well enough.


What a mess!

Well, those are my thoughts on the whole thing anyway. I have no doubts that many people will disagree with this (Learn MSA first! Romanized Arabic is blasphemy! You say “um” in your video, so your Arabic is worthless! etc.), especially if you have different goals in learning your language.

There is never one right way to learn a language, but the advice in this post is what I’d suggest if you have similar goes and uses for your languages as I do.

If anything I’ve written (about MSA etc.) here needs correction, let me know and I’ll apply it.

Otherwise, sImage with nevein 1hare your thoughts on all this in the comments below!


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  • WC

    I think anyone who learns (any language) while speaking to natives and/or consuming native media will automatically gravitate towards your advice here. I think it’s really the only option, unless studying textbooks for a language you aren’t using is your idea of fun. (If it is, go ahead! I’m happy for you.) It’s more fun, more engaging, and more useful.

    It moves the “you used slang in a formal situation” mistakes to the early part of your education, but even that isn’t really a bad thing, IMO. It’s going to happen eventually, and it’ll be less abrasive to people if they can tell you’re just starting to learn. If you speak perfectly but use slang when you shouldn’t, they’ll think it’s on purpose.

  • Kevin Post

    “You say “um” in your video, so your Arabic is worthless!”

    I say “um” in English so I guess my native tongue is in fact worthless

  • Idahosa

    Hey Benny, I remember we were talking about this together in Rio. I still can’t believe that people stil have the audacity to look a language-learner in the eye and tell him to learn “standard” over “dialect”. But your comment about the country’s government wanting to declare “Arabic” as their official language sheds A LOT of light on the situation for me now.

    This is topic of “standard” versus “local” is something I plan on exploring a lot in my blog in the future. I actually argue that dialectal, slang, pidgin and mixed languages are actually SUPERIOR to standardized languages, because the more rules you try to impose on the language, the more uptight people become and the less likely they are to “Create” and “evolve” the language naturally as it should.

    I recommend checking out my current blog post, where I talk about Montreal Joual and Franglais and demonstrate a rap song in it. So much Flow!

    Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Benny Lewis

      It isn’t audacity. As I said, it’s a mess of political, religious, tradition and many other reasons that people will insist on standard.

      • Idahosa

        Indeed. For western languages it just seems to be a simple question of elitism, but I can imagine how much more complex the situation gets when you mix these factors in. Interesting stuff keep it coming!

  • Michael

    It seems my earlier attempt to leave a comment has failed, grrr…
    I’d say it’s worth one’s time to learn how to read the script. Sure you might see “Franco” Arabic written in texts and email, but what about signs on the street etc.? Also, it’s just really rewarding to be able to do it! Great post, btw, I wish this had been available to me when I first started learning Arabic, it’s thoughtfully written and frank. Btw, I love the mustache! =})

    • Benny Lewis

      Yep, as I said, it only takes a few hours to really get a hold of Arabic script. There aren’t that many letters, and reading signs and menus etc. is essential. I wouldn’t read grammar explanations in it though.

      Glad you enjoyed it, and we’ll see if the moustache survives when I leave Egypt!

      • Sara El-Toukhy


        I noticed that the links I sent you didn’t go through, so I’ve written a list, please see below;

        Arabic of Egypt: Complete Course for Beginners (Colloquial Series) by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud
        Gaafar (16 Apr 2007)

        Kallimni ‘Arabi Bishweesh: A
        Beginners’ Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic 1 by Samia
        Louis (15 Feb 2009)

        Kallimni ‘arabi: An
        Intermediate Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic by Samia Louis (20 Apr

        Kallimni ‘Arabi
        Aktar an Upper Intermediate Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic by Samia Louis (15 Jan

        Kallimni ‘Arabi
        Mazboot: An Early Advanced Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic 4 by Samia Louis (15 Feb

        Kallimni ‘Arabi Fi
        Kull Haaga: A Higher Advanced Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic 5 by Samia Louis (15 Feb

        Colloquial Arabic
        of the Gulf (Colloquial Series) by Clive Holes (28 Oct

        Arabic (Levantine) (Routledge Colloquials (Paperback)) (English, Arabic)
        McLoughlin, Leslie J ( Author… by Leslie J McLoughlin
        (29 Jan 2009)

        All the best!


  • Nada Magdy

    Nevin said a normal person in the street wouldn’t understand Fusha! I’m sorry but that’s just wrong most of “normal” Egyptians would understand it just fine, unless if you’re an Egyptian who never went to school, other than that Fusha should be comprehensible and you should be able to even speak it *might be a little bit broken but still*

    She also said we never use Arabic letters in texting, I know a lot of people use Latin letters but also there are a lot of people *including myself* use proper Arabic script and changing the language setting is easy unless you don’t have Arabic characters on your computer or phone.
    And Benny, you suggested that the Egyptian dialect is an actual language, right? I’m no expert but I’m gonna have to disagree with you, and I think most of Arabic native speakers would disagree with you too. We can’t say that this dialect is a language on its own, no matter how sophisticated, big and widely used it is, at the end of the day it’s just another dialect.
    And I’m not being cocky or anything but Standard Arabic comes first then our local dialect, if it’s the other way around then we’d be missing on a huge part of the culture and arts, Thank you.

    • Benny Lewis

      Please don’t misquote. She said that a normal person in the street won’t SPEAK Fusha. This is vastly different to saying they wouldn’t understand it. I have asked people directly and pretty much everyone confirms that if I tried to chat to them in Fusha, they wouldn’t be able to hold up their end of the conversation, although yes, they’d understand me fine.

      I don’t know if she used the word “never”, but the impression I got was that lots of people do it. In her case the settings are easier because she may use her computer in English for other things.

      And you are wrong on a third count. I suggested that dialect is a poor description, and in my view it should count as a language, but officially you are right that it isn’t.

      Please kindly pay attention better before commenting. All 3 of your points are misunderstandings or exaggerations of what was actually said.

      • Nada Magdy

        Oh no, I didn’t misquote, just check the video @ 3:03

        Non Arab viewers who watch the video wouldn’t know that she was just exaggerating and she didn’t literally mean “a normal guy in the street won’t understand Fusha”.
        Even if a lot people wouldn’t be able to hold up a conversation in Fusha, that will be because of the lack of proper education or any kind of education at all. A friend of mine once said: “people not being able to understand Fusha is not proof of the independence of the local dialect”.

        A lot of people who use Latin letters in texting because they think it’s cute, cool and modern thing to imitate Europeans not because the Arabic letters are inefficient or something.

        • Benny Lewis

          Fair enough that she said that, although I’m sure she meant taking part in a conversation.

          • Nada Magdy

            Benny, why did you delete some of your comment?! how “my 3 points were either misunderstanding or exaggeration of what was actually said” and how “I should pay attention before commenting!!” You didn’t have to delete that, did you? :/

          • Benny Lewis

            You were right about the quote, so it was wrong of me to say you should pay attention, and edited my comment to take that line out.

    • smart mzizo

      I am Egyptian and educated. If`s awkward and very hard for me to speak MSA. And for many people yes of little education can understand. You need alot of work to understand MSA, and even then you will not be able to speak MSA. It`s like asking an Italian to speak latin. There are 40% atleast of Egyptians are illiterate.

      • Adam Alarabi

        I’m Tunisian and I think you’re exaggerating ! an educated Arab person speaks and understands very well MSA because it’s the language of poetry,letters,and almost everything we get in Arab schools from the primary school to college level..

  • fatma

    While it is true that many use latin script to text and chat in arabic (I do it myself) it is usually only those that went to an english/french school growing up, most of my friends who went to an arabic school still use arabic script even if they are using dialect

  • Georgia

    I studied Arabic at university (MSA) and I agree with you, it’s really not that helpful for understanding people and speaking. Learning a dialect first, then MSA is a good suggestion. I can communicate with people, but it is a struggle to understand some people when they are talking (and after having done a degree in it, you are expected to understand and it’s pretty embarrassing when you don’t) Also its uncomfortable talking to people in MSA. It reveals people’s education level – if they can’t speak to you in good MSA they are ‘outed’ as poorly educated. That’s not really a situation I like being in! I do translation, so MSA wasn’t a waste of time or anything (it pays the bills), but for communication purposes, I think you have learned to communicate waaaay faster using your methods. I think one of the first things I learned was how to say “my mother works for the united nations”. The text books really are terrible! I also agree with you that the dialects are more like different languages. I’m currently learning Turkish, and I have found that Turkish and Azeri are way closer to each other than most Arabic dialects are to each other, yet Azeri is often considered a different language. Whether it is considered a language or a dialect is definitely political.

    • Adam Alarabi

      I’m Arab Tunisian bro, we love when Chinese visitors talk Fusha with us, we understand them well and they don’t find any difficulty or have thoughts like ” what would Arabs think if We spoke Fusha with them ! u know ! guys and girls love it when their lovers send them letters of love written in Fusha.. it’s the language of love and everything beautiful and meaningful..

  • Ahmed Ibrahim

    “Kif int? Int titkellem bil-Malti? Minn fejn int?” means “How are you? Are you speaking Maltese? Where are you from?”

    (wieħed, tnejn, tlieta, erbgħa, ħamsa, sitta, sebgħa, tmienja, disgħa, għaxra)

    These simple questions and “numbers from 1 to 10″ are an example of a dialect of Arabic that became a separate and independent language with heavy loanwords from Italian. Maltese people consider calling their language a “dialect of Arabic” as an insult.
    The opposite in the Arab World, people of any Arab country consider calling any dialect of Arabic a “separate language” as an insult.

    In Malta, they read, write and speak only in Maltese and they never use MSA or the Arabic script.

    Here in Egypt and other Arab countries, when we SPEAK, we only use our local dialects but when we READ, WRITE and STUDY, we do that only in MSA.

  • Ahmad BaUbaid

    Nice post !

    Really applaud you for learning Arabic. I gotta say, you’re doing quite well !

    I would just like to point out 2 things:

    1) Not everybody uses the Latin script when typing dialectic Arabic. It’s probably popular among the youth but some still use the regular Arabic script. I use it, in fact, with most of my friends and family.

    2) Standard Arabic, while not the choice if you want to be fluent in conversational and everyday settings, is indeed one of the most powerful languages that exist today. If you can master it, you’ll without a doubt have one of the most beautiful, powerful, and expressive languages. It’s also more “pure” than dialectic Arabic. This purity really shows in literary pieces of all sorts.

    This is a language which has over 20 synonyms to say “lion”. This also applies to other words as well. I’m no master of MSA (though I wish I was), but it really is a wonder in itself!

    I’ve read random pieces of English and Arabic poetry, and I can say with confidence that Arabic poetry is far superior and much more beautiful and a large part of it has to do with the language.

    Good luck !

  • Samuel Gendreau

    Awesome post Benny! I learned a lot from it, thanks a bunch! Your video intros are really great, may I ask how you make them? Did you get somebody to make the intros for you? I’m curious to know which program is used to make them.


  • Abdulaziz Alzahrani

    Modern Standard Arabic is understood in all the Arabian Countries. The dialects are just a variation of the standard Arabic so I think that everyone is capable of speaking the standard Arabic.

    • languagepotato

      let’s try that shall we (i love MSA, but the ‘dialect’ i speak, looks as arabic as french looks italian (if not less)), i’ll speak my ‘dialect’ (which is moroccan arabic)
      nta qolti mni ken hdro darija tqdr t3rf ash ken qolo, nqollek ash 3mlt lbara7 o nta tqlb t-trjmha: lbara7 klit l7ut o 3jboni bezaf.

  • Edmund Yong

    still, without government support and official status, the dialects will not be well organised and standardized. and things like dialects of dialects itself occur :(
    this makes it even harder to learn dialects as there too many variation.

  • David

    Possibly the most useful article on learning Arabic anywhere.

    Thank you!

  • Andrew Moorehead

    I do like the Latin analogy. Just imagine if people tried to tell you to learn Latin to go to Spain.

    • Cashmoney

      But if everybody still studied Latin in school in Europe and it was used in speeches and on the news, it would make more sense.

      I don`t think MSA is as different from dialects as Latin is from Spanish though. I could be wrong about that, but I think MSA is quite close to the Eastern dialects like Levant, Gulf, Najdi, and Iraqi. A little less close to Egyptian, and a quite a bit less for Maghrebi.

  • Guest

    Fantastic post. I’m learning ECA at the moment, as well; I’m going to Cairo in February. And I think what you’re doing is great, keep it up! One question: how do you insert Arabic text in your post above???

  • Simon Hall

    I think what you’re doing is great, keep it up! I’m learning ECA as well, heading to Cairo in February….one question: do you know a good way to insert Arabic text into posts like yours above??!

  • Patrick

    Hello Benny!

    I am trying to learn Egyptian Arabic but I have a bit of a resource problem. All the material (just as you said in one of your blog posts) seems to only be MSA.

    I was wondering if you could recommend me some resources to learn more vocabulary and grammar.

    Also excellent blog post, a native Egyptian actually once told me that MSA arabic was “boring”, another reason to learn dialect.

  • Crno Srce

    Nice video, Benny. I don’t know any Arabic, so my comment is a bit worthless, but you sounded the business to my untrained ears. Seems good for 4 months.

    You missed out on a 3 month mark video again with this mission – as a couple of the guys who’ve followed your advice have recently shown (Brian and Baron Jon), this checkpoint is one of the most interesting for the mission. It’d be nice if it could be planned in to your next mission to make sure you don’t miss it, but this 4 month video is a decent substitute. I know you want to spend the time to make the vids look nice, so it’s understandable that it can be hard sometimes.

  • Forrest

    My gulf friends all say they speak Arabic badly, I finally began to realize what they ment. They are talking about MSA. Even the guys from the same country but are from different cities laugh at the differences. From what I see I think culture gets in the way of honest views of language. Because Arabic is so closely tied with Islam it is honorable to have MSA as the official language in these countries. Talk to a linguist and they say the languages are different. Talk to most Arabic speakers they call it a dialect.

  • Joe

    Hey Benny, I have been learning another very ‘difficult’ language for about 3/4 months too now. I have to say that from watching this video that our speaking level seems about similar, however your listening level is through the roof… And for me who’s never found the speaking too hard, I find this unbelievably impressive so big props. I can tell that you don’t understand every word, but you are able to follow just abouts it seems and contribute. If someone starts speaking my target language to me at that speed for that long a period at a time, I’m lost. How do you practice listening, just vocab and watching stuff? I know you give a lot of advice about language learning in other posts, but I dunno, I guess I’m just looking for some quick listening advice or motivation. Cheers

  • Duncan Stewart

    I have to agree with one exception!

    If you speak English and French, then it is better to learn MSA, mostly because everyone in the Arab world speaks one of those three. ( Also to disclaim, I’m not really sure I speak MSA, because I learned it in a village and was told I speak with a Bahraini accent…)

    Also from my experience, you get a lot of respect from Arabs if you speak Quranic Arabic. (But I guess that is elitism? :D )

    I speak all three, and I am never unable to communicate with someone, even Berbers. If I only knew Maghrebi, or Egyptian, I might find it hard in the Levante where they speak French, or in the Gulf where English is prevalent.

    • Forrest

      Duncan, tell me if I understand your point. You get lots of respect from Arabs because you speak MSA but cannot communicate? That is what it looks like you are saying. Isn’t that point Benny is making? Let me know if I misunderstood.

  • Victor Berrjod

    Do Egyptians all understand each other? I imagine Egyptian dialects must be quite diverse.

  • José Guilherme

    did you like the links I send to you, about arabic learning?

  • Craig

    I would like to wholeheartedly agree with the above. I have spent about 3 years studying various dialects (including Arabic, Lebanese/Palestianian, the gulf dialects and Moroccan) as well as MSA. I agree 100% that learning MSA is like a French or Spanish person learning Latin and it really is like everyone in Europe learning Latin just so that they can listen to and read the news. It is wrong that Arabic is classed as one of the most spoken languages in the world, because it is not and these are not dialects – they are languages in their own right (only not being classed as “languages” for religious reasons and pride). Gulf Arabic and Moroccan are as different as Spanish and Romanian.

    To demonstrate these differences, we only need to take one word as an example and compare the languages (I’m sorry but I am not afraid to say the word languages because that is what they are)

    Comparison of the word “now”

    Egypt: Dilwa’ti
    Lebanese/Palestinian: hala
    Other areas of Palestina: Hal’eet/halqeet
    Some areas of Arabia: Alhin/dalheen/daheen
    Iraq/kuweit: Hassa
    Moroccan: Daba
    Algerian: Druuk

    As you can see, for such a simple “everyday” word, it differs drastically in all dialects.
    There are, having said that, many similarities also between some words, but this would be comparable to that of other language families such as the latin or slavic languages (not dialects!!!)

    The problem with learning the dialect is that there is such little material to learn with and once getting past the books that do exist, where do you go?

    There aren’t even any comprehensive vocabulary books for learning the vocabulary of the Arabic “languages”. Why has nobody made an Egyptian vocabulary book covering themes? Many people learning Arabic are actually interested in Egyptian (being the most spoken dialect in numbers), however no material exists to help them learn beyond the basics.

    This is the problem we are faced with. However, if you look at the history of languages, you will see that when a language stops evolving and the people begin speaking other languages (or dialects) that become more and more distant from the original language, that very language begins to die because it becomes archaic and useless.
    This is essentially what is already happening with Modern Standard Arabic. It is becoming like Latin or Sanskrit – an old language that few people speak and that sounds old and of little use. You can keep it alive to some extent by studying it, but when people stop to speak it as their mother tongue, it becomes useless and dies.

    MSA is quickly dying out and is being kept alive for official purposes, the same way that Latin, ancient Greek, Sanskrit all were kept alive for official purposes before becoming completely useless.

    Most Arabs will probably hate me for saying so, but then they should consider that all Arabic languages were born from the same prestigious language that was spoken hundreds of years ago, and why should these languages be less prestigious? Your mother tongue is your most prestigious language.

    In conclusion: If you want to learn Arabic to speak and understand the people, without a doubt you should learn one of the varieties of Arabic such as Egyptian, Lebanese, Gulf, Moroccan or whichever dialect is of interest to the learner.
    The so called “dialects” are the future of Arabic and people will eventually begin writing in them. As far as I am aware, there are already some books written in Egyptian dialect.
    On the other hand, if your aim is to translate Arabic literature or read the news rather than speak, then MSA is the only option unfortunately for now, but things will change. Just look at the history of languages – these changes are part of the nature of languages and things will always change.

  • Aaron G Myers

    Great post Benny and great advice.


    A quick opinion question: I have no immediate plans on going to an Arab country very soon, although I eventually plan on it. But I’m not sure which one. So would it be worth my while to study MSA to get a lot of (admittedly academic) vocabulary and focus on reading, and then focus on a dialect when I buy a plane ticket? Or do you think that would be counterproductive since I’m not learning to speak first, only to read and write?

  • Ahmed

    There is a lot of mistakes in this article ,more than i am able to point like how you encourage people to use Romanized Arabic which is a big mistake because the only arabs that use it are the arabs how doesn’t have an arabic keyboard and living in a foreign country, and how you compare french and spanish in latin dialect to arabic dialect

    unlike in europe arabs from any country can understand each other at least 80% because the difference between dialect and MSA is only in spelling but the vocabulary is the same and whenever you are writing an article or a letter or a contract or almost anything other than chatting you write it in MSA

  • Chris

    I’ve studied Arabic off and on for the past few years, first with a semester auditing a class at my university and most recently while living in Saudi Arabia. The biggest mistake I made was concentrating only on the alphabet and reading, especially with grammar maven teachers who spent more time concentrating on whether I wrote my Jim/Ha/Kha in a formal way or whether I added the proper suffixes on my nouns. The result was that after almost two years of studying, I could not hold a 5 minute conversation like you are doing in this video. Six months ago, I started using my Bedouin students as a resource and have made more progress in conversational Arabic in that time than all the time leading up to that. Thanks for the good advice, Benny.

  • Kommissar89

    Back in the 80s when I was studying at the Defense Language Institute (Russian) I had some friends who were studying Arabic. It was an 18 month course that consisted of 12 months of MSA and 6 months of the target dialect. My friend Sami, whose parents were Egyptian, spoke fluent Egyptian Arabic at home but could not initially read and write Arabic and he was able to graduate early after completing the MSA portion of the course but most students were required to complete a dialect. I would assume the materials were produced in house as our Russian materials were. Proficiency testing is based on MSA for reading comprehension and target dialect for listening comprehension. That would seem to support what you are saying, you need to know the local dialect to communicate effectively.

  • Dejvo

    I’m sorry Benny, but why can’t we say Arabic has dialects. My friend from Germany can’t understand Schwäbisch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a completely different language. Some dialects are close and some dialects aren’t mutually comprehensible.

  • Dejvo

    P.S. Not everyone is interested in the Egyptian dialect which is the most spoken one with loads of resources. I personally like the Lebanese dialect and unless I find some native speaker all I can do is watch a few Youtube videos and buy a insufficient Spoken Lebanese book. :( So I can either give it up and learn some other dialect or study the MSA in time being )

  • Sharlie4

    I totally agree! I have been learning the Morocaan dialect via fb and an online resource. Nobody in Morocco actually *speaks* Modern standard arabic ,they speak their *dialect* and they write it using european letters!

  • Rocky Singh

    Iam working in dubai and i really feel helpless when talking to locals and employees most people dont know english can u please help me which arabic language dialect to learn .. i have heard of pimsleur will it help

  • Rocky Singh

    can anyone help

  • Judi Kaakarli

    Your advice is great, though my only “complaint” is that the different Arabic dialects spoken in different countries should not be considered different languages.
    I am a Syrian American from Michigan. If I were to go to Louisiana, I would find the accent spoken there funny-sounding, though I would understand it. Some of the phrases spoken would be different, but it would still make sense to me. Same thing with England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, etc.
    I have been to Syria, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt and have been able to communicate with people from all those countries in my Shami accent while they spoke in their respective dialects. I understood them, and they understood me. Like it or not, we all do speak the same language, though some of our vocabulary may be different and we can sound odd to each other. I know, when I speak to Egyptians, I often have to ask them to slow down, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot understand them.
    This comment is so incoherent and I must sound like an uneducated fool, but, real talk, Arabic is one language with several unique dialects.

  • Cashmoney

    I think the value of MSA for conversation is very underestimated. You`re right that no Arab speaks COMPLETELY in MSA, but when speaking with someone with a different dialect they include some elements of MSA into their speech to make it more formal and easier to understand. It`s the same when Scottish people talk to me, they adjust their English enough for us to communicate, not fully using their dialect. Knowing MSA gives you the key for communication between dialects.

    True, to be “fluent” in Arabic you need to be able to speak a dialect well, but you also need to know MSA and get experience negotiating meaning with speakers of other dialects – and gain an awareness of the differences between dialects – enough to be able to bridge the gaps. Without MSA you have about a snowball`s chance in hell of doing that.

    If I was interested only in one particular country, I would learn that dialect first and then start learning MSA later. If I was going to travel through a number of Arabic countries I would learn MSA if possible (though the conversational style learning materials are hard to come back for MSA – but easy for major dialects) and play with it and learn some dialect to mix it with in each country. Though I understand that some people just want to learn for their travels, and not as a serious undertaking – in which case learning Egyptian or Palestinian is probably a good bet.

    I don`t perceive a real big difference between Arabic in the Levant, Iraq, the Gulf, and Arabian peninsula – even in Egypt. You can just change a few things in each area and you`ll be speaking something like the local dialect. Knowing MSA, I don`t find this hard. I don`t understand Moroccan Arabic very well, but I imagine I could improve that with some practice.

  • TheBookLady

    I wish most universities understood this, wallah! I’m having a hard time getting my son evaluated for university because he “only” speaks Kaleeji and Egyptian.

  • TheBookLady

    You are right on with your comments. This is exactly what I’ve found. I know a number of Saudi students through my cousin’s family, who are Homestay hosts (as I now am as of recently). We have gotten particularly close to one in particular, who we now count as family. When I told him I want to learn Arabic this summer as he was headed back to KSA for a few months, he said not to learn MSA yet. I told him the only really good course I could find was in Egyptian (Michel Thomas) and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to understand him and his cousins. He said to go ahead and learn it, and I would find I could understand most of what they say, and he’d help with any vocabulary that was different.

    And he’s right. I’m not even halfway through the course yet, and he jokingly warned a cousin this week to be careful what he says around me because I can understand a lot of what they say. I still have a lot more to learn but I’m glad to have saved myself a lot of trouble by listening to him.

  • Adam Alarabi

    I’m Arab and I assure you that everyone (or let’s say at least 98%) Understands MSA So, you better study it (instead of hundreds of Arab dialects) and the most important reason to study MSA is that you will find every subject written in the Arab World is Written in MSA (daily news papers, books..) A great reason to study MSA first is that You will be able then to understand the different dialects effortlessly.. but if you learn a certain dialect, you will have to do a huge effort to understand the rest of the arab dialects and the MSA

    • Benny Lewis

      Understanding MSA and actually being able to speak it are very different things. It’s like if 98% of Spaniards understand Italian. This doesn’t actually mean anything in terms of normal conversations where you have to produce it.

    • Mister Sirloin

      just so you know, there are infinite books on Moroccan dialect in many languages, and even many full dictionaries. i have quite a collection.

  • Arash Azizi

    This article just shows absolute ignorance and philistine-ness over what Arabic is and how it has developed. All your travels doesn’t seem to have made you any wiser.

  • Mister Sirloin

    very interesting. I feel I can comment and agree with you, because I am just about to have finished taking 2 years of Moroccan Darija classes and 2 years of Fusha classes. I would sum it up as follows: the Fusha classes are almost a complete waste of time and extreeemely dull, completely focused on very boring grammar lessons, whereas Darija is a fascinating, living, wonderful LANGUAGE. after 2 years of classes and a trip or two to Morocco, I can say quite a bit and maintain a pretty decent conversation (as can most of the other learners I know at the same level), and the learners in Fusha all seem bored, tired and can’t even get a basic sentence together. plus, all the effort is for nothing, since nobody will ever speak to them in this pretty but ancient tongue. i try to get excited about Fusha, but it seems like the more i do, the more i just find disappointment. whereas every encounter with Darija is fun and rewarding. i only recommend Fusha for people working in a high-powered position (diplomats? media?), the religious and masochists :) just my semi-informed viewpoint. maybe once i get further in Fusha i will grow to like it more.

  • Bloater

    Interesting. I’ve always found Arabic the most frustrating of the languages I’ve tried to learn for the very practical reasons you describe. The problem is, if you’re going to be fluent, you’ve effectively got to learn two languages. You at least need to be able to read MSA.

    I tried the same approach as you when I worked in Morocco ages ago. The problem is that it only took me so far. At the time, there were only two books on Moroccan Arabic and once I’d read them, I was stuck because I didn’t know Arabic script. With another language, I would have started reading newspapers or something at that stage.

    I’m not sure I agree that you can learn the script quickly. I learned Cyrillic and Greek script in about a fortnight each. I don’t speak much of either Greek or Russian but if I’m going down a motorway on a bus, I can read the names of the towns and villages before we’ve actually passed them. Arabic script is much more foreign and I still struggle with it although I’ve spent far more time on it. I can actually read newspaper articles reasonably well but I just have to concentratemuch more. You can learn the basics of Arabic script quickly enough, as you say, but, for me at least, being really comfortable with it, so I can recognise a word upside down, say, the way I do in English, is taking ages. I’m not sure I’ll ever manage it. You don’t realise it, but when you’ve been reading since you were a toddler you recognise whole words, not just individual letters, when you’re reading. Learning Arabic script has made me appreciate what it must be like for someone trying to learn to read for the first time as an adult.

    In other words, to me,if you want to be remotely fluent at Arabic (which I’m still not!), you need to start with the script early because otherwise you’ll just get frustrated when you’ve finished your Egyptian Arabic phrasebook.

  • alwathek qotob

    قالت له من خلال الفيديو إنه لو كلم أحداً باللغة الفصحى فلن يفهمه. ولكن العكس هو الصحيح. لأنه أينما ذهبت وتكلمت بالعربية الفصحى فسيفهمك الجميع. فالفصحى أفضل حينما تسافر في البلاد العربية. لأن الفصحى واحدة أما العاميات فكثيرة، ويصعب على الأجنبي أن يتعلم كل العاميات، والأسهل أن يتعلم الفصحى. اتمنى أن يكون النقاش مع إنسان متخصص في مجال اللغة الفصحى واللغة العامية. :)

  • Martin D Weiss

    Loved your post! But isn’t Levantine Arabic (Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese) considered something akin to a gold standard of the spoken language?