Standard Arabic or Local Dialect - Which Should You Learn First?

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Standard Arabic or Local Dialect – Which Should You Learn First?

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Here you go – my first video update from when I was in Egypt!

As always, activate Youtube's captions option to view subtitles as this is in Arabic, and I hope you like the 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 about learning Arabic, 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 a 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 that 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 would likely be 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 their dialect.

MSA's use is for reading, for understanding religious texts, 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 other 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. Here's a snippet from my friend's Facebook page, it was a congratulations message for his wedding: “Mbrooooooook ya 2maaaaaar anbs6lk ya 7lwee anshla shofk mbso6a wytmmlkon 3la 5er”. The numbers you see are used to express Arabic letters that don't have a clear English equivalent, but the shape of the number resembles an Arabic letter.

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 just agree to 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), they don't distract you with Arabic script and are small enough to consume quickly. Lonely Planet does 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 (our review is here) because you can search per country there, rather than get “generic” Arabic lessons.

  1. 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, 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.

  1. When you reach a comfortable conversational stage, but still have plenty of 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).

  1. 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.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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