Which arabic dialect?
February 16, 2011 5:04 AM   Subscribe

All this revolution stuff is making me curious about this whole middle east and north africa place I hear so much about. So much so I'm half thinking of learning Arabic, or at least trying and failing. Oh God's of Mefi which dialect should I go for? Whats easiest to learn or most understood by most people: Egyptian, Classical,Standard, Gulf, Syrian, Maghreb or waa?
posted by Damienmce to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Just an anecdote from a trip to Morocco.

From what I recall, they explained that in Morroco, and I think most of the sane Arab world they don't expect foreigners to speak Arabic. They do expect you to at least speak French (in Morocco, or Spanish in northern Morocco given their proximity to Spain). Arabic speakers tend to speak multiple languages and not expect tourists to speak Arabic.

That said - eagerly waiting a wiser opinion - I've often wanted to learn a bit of polite Arabic just for the sake of doing so.
posted by TravellingDen at 6:00 AM on February 16, 2011

I could be incorrect here, but my understanding is that Egyptian is most widely understood, but Standard is what's used in the newspapers and media. I would go for Egyptian Arabic if you are traveling, maybe Standard if you just want to browse media.

I, too, have wanted to learn a little Arabic, or at least to learn the script to read basic travel words. I had been planning to learn a few words for my trip to Egypt next month... but I suppose I won't be going now.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:11 AM on February 16, 2011

You might sound like a news presenter, but Standard Arabic would be something every Arabic speaker or reader could tune into.

Other than that, you might wish to find out which country's soap operas are the most popular. From memory, I think Egypt.

Disclaimer: I don't speak Arabic and the only Arabic speaking countries I've travelled to are in the Emirates.
posted by tavegyl at 6:17 AM on February 16, 2011

I learned standard Arabic but also the most common expressions in Egyptian, Levantine, and Khaliji dialects. If you're going to learn a dialect I'd recommend Egyptian which is widely understood because of their film and television exports.
posted by atrazine at 6:29 AM on February 16, 2011

AFAIK, the situation with Arabic is similar to the situation with Latin and the various Romance languages descended from it: you have a lingua franca (no pun intended) and numerous local vernaculars. Until the 19th century or so, modern Latin persisted in certain circles, especially academia. You might have defended your thesis in Latin, for example. I've read that, even today, legal documents in the Vatican also must be in Latin.

Similarly, in regions where Arabic is spoken you will find both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or fus'ha for "the eloquent one") and a local vernacular, which may be very divergent and not mutually comprehensible with MSA or other vernaculars from other parts of the world (cf. French and Spanish).

Again AFAIK, in most countries the standard and the vernacular exist in a delicate and complementary balance. There are layers of social meaning attached to speaking one or the other (or one "flavored" with the other) in any given situation. This seems to be as difficult for non-speakers to grasp at an intuitive level as the T-V distinction.

To be a fluent and "native-like" speaker, you would need to have a command of both MSA and the local language. You can probably get by with MSA alone. MSA is what's taught most commonly in schools in the US, followed by the Egyptian vernacular. Sometimes they're part of the same program of study and students are expected to have exposure to both.

For an overview of Arabic and its vernaculars, consider this book.
posted by Nomyte at 6:33 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Egyptian is probably the most widely understood, as Egypt is the biggest Arab country and is also the producer of a lot of TV and movies. However, just because people *understand* a dialect doesn't mean they speak it. I speak MSA and Shami/Levantine dialect and have often had the experience of speaking to someone in MSA only to have the answer come back in a dialect I don't understand. Khaliji is really easy to pick up as it is very close to MSA.
posted by proj at 6:33 AM on February 16, 2011

For what you're talking about "All this revolution stuff is making me curious about this whole middle east and north africa," you don't really need a dialect, you need to learn Modern Standard Arabic. That way you can listen to newscasts and read newspapers etc... - most of them are in MSA. Blogs and a few random mags/papers are sometimes in dialect.

Darija (Moroccan Arabic) is supposedly one of the most difficult for other Arabic speakers to understand, both because of accent quirks ("swallowing" vowels, for example), and because it has a lot of Berber/French/Spanish mixed in. I learned Moroccan Arabic first, which supposedly makes learning MSA more difficult - at least that's the excuse I try at least once in each Arabic class. ;)

Side note : If you plan on *visiting* Morocco, there really isn't a need to understand French, as most people connected with tourism and mass transportation (airlines, trains, etc..) speak at least basic English. As Nomyte mentioned social meaning, I'll say that the same holds true for knowing a few basic phrases in Arabic vs. a few in French. Go for the former.
posted by HopperFan at 7:49 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Riddle me this then, given I'm an gringo I expect people would cut me some slack for speaking MSA over a dialect but is MSA trickier that Egyptian. Currently looking at the Michel Thomas Method Arabic course ("Is it possible for me that way?" etc.) which appears to be Egyptian
posted by Damienmce at 8:29 AM on February 16, 2011

Learning standard arabic is, well, standard. Trying to pick up a spoken dialect might be possible if you were living in an arab country and surrounded by people talking that dialect. But if not, and, I think also as an adult with a faded ability to absorb language by hearing in the way children do, you need take advantage of the written word for your learning. For that, you'll always be dealing with standard arabic. There are also many grammars, dictionaries, and online sources of audio available for standard arabic.

Learning arabic is very hard and takes a long, long time. Knowledge of latin or another language that uses inflected verb forms and case endings can be helpful. Web sites that provide audio recitations of Qur'an are good for letting you hear the sounds of the letters slowly and correctly pronounced.

This is my favorite book in genre of beginner's guides to arabic: A F L Beeston's Written Arabic: An Approach to the Basic Structures. The author's approach is really elegantly worked-out. But it's very compressed. it does have a long, slow introduction at the beginning to the letters of the alphabet and the ligatures for combinations, which would probably make it worthwhile even if that's all you use it for.
posted by Paquda at 8:41 AM on February 16, 2011

You don't have to worry about people 'cutting you slack' for speaking MSA--speaking MSA is not looked-down or thought to be annoying--on the contrary, it's the proper thing to do.
posted by Paquda at 8:43 AM on February 16, 2011

Define "tricky." MSA is more richly inflected than the vernaculars, but it's about as accurate to say that one is easier than another as saying that French is easier to learn than Latin. MSA has more rudimentary features that beginning learner can identify very readily ("Oh, I have to learn all these endings and suffixes now?"), but once you get past the rudiments, the deeper features of any language are as easy or as difficult to learn.

Also, more learning materials exist for MSA than Egyptian or another variant, and it's more codified than the vernacular forms.
posted by Nomyte at 8:45 AM on February 16, 2011

It's worth saying that the choice between learning MSA and learning a dialect is a little bit of a false one. MSA is the backbone of most dialects, as it is taken from classical Arabic. If you learn MSA, you will learn dialects as a series of pronunciation differences and vocabulary differences, but you won't learn a "separate language" per se. I'd learn MSA and focus on a dialect rather than just learning a dialect. Especially if you want to watch Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyya or read Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
posted by proj at 8:49 AM on February 16, 2011

but you won't learn a "separate language" per se.

And I'd add to above comments by saying that this is kind of not-true for darija, as others have pointed out. Darija is the most distinct dialect and probably the least useful for travel in the rest of the Arab world and/or understanding Arab media.
posted by proj at 9:48 AM on February 16, 2011

One other thing, just to keep a veneer of realism on this conversation: unless you're a full-time student and/or have loads and loads of time on your hands, plus access to tutors/teachers, reading partners, and other resources, and unless you can devote years to it, gaining enough proficiency to converse even moderately fluently in Arabic is just very unlikely to happen.
posted by Paquda at 11:19 AM on February 16, 2011

The best answer will depend on your circumstances - are you thinking of enrolling in formal classes, finding a private tutor, or using a DVD/workbook self-teaching method? I would say that the best bet for Arabic as a second-language student is to focus on MSA as the core, and branch out into a dialect as you gain a basic understanding of the grammar.

With MSA you can at least practice reading and listening using internet sources like al-Jazeera and other international Arabic media. If you mainly want to focus on speaking/listening and have a local speaker to work with, by all means go ahead and start with whatever dialect they speak.
posted by Fin Azvandi at 2:06 PM on February 16, 2011

Learn MSA, but try to find a text that is informed by dialect usage. For instance, any textbook (rather than a reference grammar) which teaches the Arabic case system is, in my view, totally misguided. The reason for this is that even spoken MSA doesn't use cases, and the cases only change the short vowels - since Arabic is written without short vowels, you can read and write correct formal MSA without knowing a thing about cases. Of course, if you're reciting classical Arabic from the Qur'an or from poetry, then they're important but religious texts for recitation are written voweled and pronunciation marks.
posted by atrazine at 11:31 PM on February 16, 2011

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