The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

If I Started Learning Arabic Again, This Is How I’d Do It


Starting learning Arabic
UPDATE: We recently created a massive resource for learning spoken Arabic (8 varieties) that has already helped thousands of learners around the world.

Check it out here and let us know what you think.

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Arabic was the first foreign language I learned to fluency.

I started almost 13 years ago when I was just starting college and it took me a full 3 years to reach a point where I felt comfortable communicating in it and understanding people when they spoke to me (which I always say is the most difficult part about learning another language).

Over the last decade I’ve travelled to the Middle East for language immersion many times and had some pretty amazing experiences along the way such as almost marrying a girl who only spoke Arabic.

But you know after all these years of learning other languages as well as doing Masters research on language acquisition, I look back in retrospect on my experience with Arabic and I can now see a lot of things that I would of done differently which would have helped me learn a lot faster and more effectively than I did back then.

Like I said it took me about 3 years to reach a point where I was speaking Arabic fluently AND understanding people when they spoke back to me.

That’s quite a long time even though I was very determined.

So if I had the experience and knowledge 13 years ago that I have now, I’m sure I would have had much better results.

Here’s what I would do if I had the chance to start over again (and what you should do if you’re just starting now):

 

1. Choose a dialect from the beginning and stick with it

If you’re reading this and you’ve decided to learn Arabic but don’t know anything about it, it’s important that you know there are lots of different ‘Arabics’.

People from the West coast of Africa right across to Asia speak Arabic and everywhere you go it sounds totally different, has different words, different grammar and in some cases sounds like an entirely different language (yet still called “Arabic”).

So before anyone learns Arabic they need to decide what part of the Arab world they’re interested in and make a decision to stick with that particular variety of Arabic at least for the time being.

You’re not going to get far if you divide your attention (I say the same about learning any two languages at the same time).

In the early days I started out with Levantine (Palestinian) and Iraqi Arabic, and also Modern Standard Arabic for reading (the formal dialect of the media).

I eventually switched to Egyptian and ended up spending the next 10 years of my life focused mainly on Egypt and getting my Egyptian Arabic to a high level but if I had of just chosen Egyptian from the beginning I could have made much more effective use of my time.

That’s not to say that Levantine, Iraqi and MSA didn’t benefit my Egyptian.

It definitely did.

But it would have been better to focus on one dialect from the beginning.

Our resource TalkInArabic.com currently offers 8 spoken varieties of Arabic.

We also recommend this resource for Egyptian Arabic.

 

2. I would not attempt to learn Modern Standard Arabic first

Or even at the same time as learning a spoken dialect.

I say choose a variety of Arabic and stick with it but if your goal is to learn to speak Arabic, then forget about Modern Standard Arabic and focus on something people actually speak.

Modern Standard Arabic isn’t spoken by anyone on Earth as a native language. It’s archaic, it’s grammatically more complicated to learn than spoken dialects and you will understand virtually nobody when you travel to the Arab world (apart from the TV).

Save yourself the regret and read this article I wrote which explains why I’m so against learning it first.

I made the mistake of devoting quite a bit of time to it in the early stages and getting continually frustrated when it conflicted with everything I was learning about Egyptian.

As I said above, it’s not that it didn’t help me in the end (especially having worked in translation in recent years), but at the time it would have been better not to.

 

3. Learn the alphabet immediately and not just resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic

Arabic script is actually what’s called an abjad which means it’s an alphabet primarily made up of consonants without vowels.

This means that a word like computer written in Arabic looks like this: kmbywtr.

The problem is when you see a word written like this and you’ve never encountered it before, it’s very hard or impossible to know how it’s pronounced unless you can hear it.

You can guess but you just can’t know (although you do improve at this at higher levels and can make very accurate guesses).

I think this is one of the main reasons why people avoid the alphabet altogether and use materials with transliterations.

This is a mistake.

The thing is – yes it will be confusing and difficult to read at first but as long as you have quality material with audio and/or a native speaker to listen to (all very easily accessible these days either in person or online), you’ll get used to it.

Have you ever seen this before?

There have been studies which have proven that when we read text, we don’t actually read every letter of every word. We see the outer letters and the ones on the inside can be scrambled up and chances are we won’t even notice mistakes while we’re reading.

What this means is that when you get used to Arabic words – just like English – you’re not actually spelling the word out anyway.

You’re just recognizing the image of the word in a sense.

So for example if I take a simple word like كتاب, I know instantly by looking at this word without spelling out it’s individual letters what it is and what it means.

I’ve associated the image of that word with sound and meaning.

The problem is if you always resort to Arabizi / Franco Arabic, you’ll never improve at this. It’s a lazy way out and will affect you majorly later on.

Also, pretty much all good quality resources for Arabic use the Arabic alphabet so you’re missing out on quality material if you avoid it.

I made the mistake early on trying to just write Arabic using English letters all the time which caused delays for me later on down the track.

The alphabet’s a piece of cake as I explained here so why not take some time to learn it?

 

4. I would recognize and practice the importance of acculturation and assimilation from day 1

This is one of the most important things I’ll tell you.

To the Jews I became a Jew.

To the Greeks I became a Greek.

Every time I step off a plane somewhere new in the world this ancient bit of wisdom that I live my life by comes back to me (admittedly way out of context but still!).

Assimilators learn languages better than anyone else.

Assimilators appreciate and understand other cultures better than anyone else.

Assimilators earn the respect and trust of local people better than anyone else.

This is one thing I was always mindful of even when I started with Arabic and I’d do it all again.

To the Arabs I became an Arab.

There’s a big difference between learning Arabic and becoming Arab.

Of course you’ll never become an Arab in the literal sense but it’s a mindset that will drive you to succeed with the language.

I’ve applied this same principle in every country I’ve lived in around the world while learning the local languages and I always earn respect from local people for it.

The one thing that really separates what I do on this blog from most other language learning blogs out there is that I take a very holistic approach to language learning which encompasses complete assimilation into the target language culture.

For me language immersion and cultural immersion cannot be separated.

As far as I’m concerned language fluency only comes about when you’re fluent in the culture as well (so to speak!).

I often encounter people too who say things like “I want to learn Arabic but I don’t really like Arab culture.”

My response is “Forget it. You’ve already failed.”

If you don’t respect and appreciate the culture and its people then don’t waste your time.

And if you want to truly excel in any language, strive to assimilate.

 

5. I would devote time in the beginning to surrounding myself with and listening to the target dialect

Be a fly on the wall in every Arabic speaking community you can find.

Assuming you’re living in a Western country in or close by a major city – you’ve probably got Arab community groups and events going on somewhere.

I attended every event I could when I started Arabic (Arabic-speaking churches, Islamic events, cultural festivals, refugee centers). If I even suspected that there were going to be Arabic speakers there, I was there.

If I started again I’d be even more active in finding every single opportunity to be around people and if this wasn’t possible, I’d at least have Arabic media playing in my house every day just so my ears adjust to it and Skyping with Arabic speakers daily.

 

6. I would find teachers who don’t just drill grammar but teach with a communicative style in the dialect I’m learning

I hate to say this but most native Arabic teachers have one of two common problems:

1) They either teach using outdated and ineffective teaching methods.

2) They teach Modern Standard Arabic as if it’s real Arabic and don’t understand the value of spoken dialects.

Traditional teaching methods which are all about drilling grammar rules and tedious memorization are prevalent all over the world unfortunately.

I’ve had a lot of bad teachers over the years (not just Arabic teachers) and the ironic thing is the bad ones have tended to be the most expensive. 🙂

If you feel overwhelmed, bored or confused in a lesson don’t always be quick to blame yourself.

Chances are the teacher stinks.

As a general rule you should come away from every lesson with you having spoken 80% of the lesson.

If you feel like you just sat there and listened to explanations without talking much then your teacher is rubbish and it’s time to look for another one.

Harsh words I know but if your teacher is doing all the talking then they aren’t a real teacher and should find another career.

Also make sure that they understand and appreciate the value of spoken Arabic dialects over Modern Standard Arabic.

Modern Standard/Classical Arabic are held in very high regard – sacred in fact – in the Arab world so it can be quite challenging to find teachers who understand why you specifically want to speak a local dialect.

In fact, even with my own site for spoken Arabic dialects TalkInArabic.com, I’ve often had trouble explaining the concept to my Arab friends who struggle to see the logic behind learning spoken dialects of Arabic instead of Modern Standard Arabic.

 

7. I would start speaking Arabic as soon as possible even if it’s grammatically terrible

This is something I didn’t have much control over when I first started.

I began learning Arabic at a time where amazing tools like italki didn’t really exist. I couldn’t just jump on a website and find people to Skype with for a couple of a bucks an hour.

That would have been a dream come true for me back then! 🙂

But even with the chances I did have to speak to people all those years ago, I was often very nervous and shy about making mistakes in front of people.

If I wasn’t too sure about getting the grammar right and didn’t know enough vocabulary, I’d just avoid using Arabic and speak English.

These days when I learn a new language I speak as much as possible as early as I can even if my grammar is horrendously bad.

Mistakes have a way of working themselves out over time but you need to take every chance you can to practice the little that you do know.

If I started Arabic again and I only knew a couple of words and phrases, I’d be out there using them constantly until they were perfect.

 

8. I would only spend time using quality books and resources

When I started learning Arabic all those years ago, there was hardly anything available for learning spoken Arabic.

My very first book for Arabic in fact was a book put together by a local mosque and it was absolutely atrocious. A waste of paper and ink.

I’ve still got it today. I look at it sometimes and think “Wow. Did I actually use this crap?”

Thankfully things have improved somewhat for dialects (not a lot though unfortunately!).

For starters, see this review and this review that I wrote recently.

I also shared some of my favorite Arabic language books here and here.

And then of course there’s my own 8 dialect resource which me and a few buddies have put together here.

Finally before you go ahead and get a language book or resource, see my crucial checklist for deciding whether it’s good or bad.

 

9. I would cast fear and prejudice of Arabs and the Middle East aside

Let’s face it: swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are nuts right now.

There’s some pretty horrendous stuff going on in various places and it’s always unpredictable what’s going to happen next even when there’s peace.

But you know one thing I’ve learned during all my travels through the Middle East and everywhere else in the world is that most people regardless of their political or religious affiliations, just care about the same stuff you and I care about: getting married, having kids, going to work to put food on the table, buying a new home, the latest gadgets, a new pair of shoes, etc.

I said the same thing about Russian people after doing language immersion there – most of them aren’t even aware of Putin’s politics and couldn’t care less. They’re too busy working, paying the bills and putting a roof over their kids’ heads.

Painting the entire Arab world as violent and psychopathic is a really naive and stupid thing to do.

My first trip to the Middle East was not too long after September 11th and I was absolutely shitting myself that something was going to happen to me.

My mother cried at the airport because she thought it was goodbye and so did I. Seriously!

And something did happen.

I loved it and went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. 🙂 My life was changed forever and I fell in love with the people there.

 

Are you learning Arabic? Share your thoughts below!

Also check out:

TalkInArabic.com for spoken Arabic dialect material.

Or Rocket for a comprehensive Egyptian Arabic audio course.

For online Skype teachers and conversation practice for a few bucks an hour I recommend italki.

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  1. Good point about choosing to learn a dialect first. I think most non native speakers don't grasp that concept in the beginning.

    Reply
      1. I don’t get it though. MSA (fusha) allows for structure. You learn how to conjugate (kataba), and how to derive words (K-T-B, for alkitaab, for instance), and you get far with learning less by heart. You say, only study a dialect. How?! Dialect is ‘made-up’. There are no rules. Very interested in the answer. I think you need to study MSA, and consequently, as early as possible, should switch to converting it to dialect.

        Reply
        1. I’m sorry Nils, but modern linguistics doesn’t agree with you on this one.

          All natural languages have grammar rules that native speakers apply through intuition; if they were made up on the fly they would be useless as communicative tools. Arabic vernaculars also have conjugation structures and other elements of grammar in exactly the same way that MSA does. This is an objective fact that any first-year linguistics student could tell you.

          MSA should only be studied first if your main goal is to read and listen to the news. If your goal is to converse with Arabs, or to understand popular music and TV shows, MSA is essentially useless.

          Reply
          1. Don’t forget the Quran. Me and many others learn Arabic manly to understand the Quran, ahadith and tafseer. Dialect won’t help you

          2. wanting to the understand the Qur’an is a noble effort to be praised, but in everyday life, what we want to know is what the woman behind is in line at the market is saying, or what the man selling us something is saying to his brother in the back of the shop, or what our girlfriend’s brother is chatting about with his friends. and we want to be able to thank people for the meals they are serving to us, the time they spend with us, etc. even a devout Qur’an learner will reap infinite more benefits in their real everyday life from a dialect than from their scholarly studies. we humans are social beings, and the very foundation of social interaction is speaking and understanding the people around you. you can learn Fusha for the Qur’an later, once you actually have friends and family, and you can interact at a basic level with human beings in the here and now.

        2. Nils, you bring up a good point. I think the article was saying that speaking it as much and as early as possible is more beneficial and since MSA is more of a written language (in a sense), it is crucial to pick a dialect. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. I think I agree with the author on this. I’m still learning grammar, but I can speak quite a bit of Egyptian Arabic. God bless!

          Reply
          1. Well you can also speak standard arabic. I order my food, say hello and introduce myself etc in modern standard arabic when I meet new people

    1. I agree that dialects are more useful for daily communications, but I started with MSA and I feel it gave me a great foundation from which to branch out to dialects. I follow a fairly simple program of practicing five areas a day to keep sharp.

      Reply
      1. Hi Chris. Which problem do you use?

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    2. According to me MSA is best

      Reply
  2. thanks for sharing ,
    simply , if you want to read and write in arabic you should learn the standard arabic
    and if you want to communicate with people you'll need to learn a local dialect , and the most known dialect in the arabic world is the egyptian one.

    Reply
  3. hello

    where i live (France) there is Algerian, Marocan, Tunisian, it’s hard to choose a dialect.

    My goal is to understand the Koran and everything ararbic around the life of prophete Muhomet (sas).

    questions :

    what is the most modern (occidental sort of way of life) arabic country (tend to think about Tunisia) ?

    what do you think about Saoudi Arabia ? did they use the same dialect that we can find in koran ? (if this is a dialect)

    Thanks 🙂

    bye

    Reply
    1. I can't speak for Tunisia but I definitely found Jordan to have a very modern, 'occidental' feel to it.

      As for Saudi dialect/s, no. It's very different to Classical Arabic. You often hear that Bedouins speak the closest living dialect to MSA but not everyone agrees.

      Reply
      1. Lebanon is an easy country to feel relaxed in, as a Westerner. The range of religious and cultural beliefs makes it easier for an outsider to feel relaxed, whereas Jordan is more mono-cultural (despite the internal differentiation between ethnic Jordanians and ethnic Palestinians).

        The Jordanian accent is very similar to fussha. Early in my MSA Arabic studies, I was surprised to find that I could understand some people talking to their kids etc, it was ALWAYS Jordanians since their accent and dialect used the words I’d been studying in MSA. Not to say there aren’t other specifically Jordanian words but it’s a good start…

        Quranic Arabic is a separate language and needs to be studied by itself. However it is a joy to find that I understand some words in the Quran from everyday words I’ve learned / can use some words I learned from the Quran in everyday conversation.

        Reply
      2. I learnt Gulf and Saudi,Nejdi and Hijazi. I’ll put it this way: you are in a great place with those dialects. With Hijazi, you got so many Egyptian words, so you can undendrstand Egyptians. Also the peninsula dialects carry over the boarders into places like iraq and jordan. I watch Jordanian bedu dramas and without studying Jordanian and can communicate with citizens from Amman and Baghdad without any difficulty.

        But,for me,fusha,puts you in the best place to learn dialects a lot quicker. You see what the dialects are doing clearer, like you do when listening to a child trying to explain things. Fusha is also richer,and offers a door to a over 1000 years of poetry,and the high culture of islam. Also the Arabs try to pull rank over you if you speak just a dialect, and they have a pedantic love of correcting. Once you know the fusha and a dialect,they sit back, and say ماء شاء الله.

        Reply
    2. My dear

      If you willing to study the Quran, and as you know its written in MSA.
      The closest dialect you can learn it is Leavants countries and also KSA, is better to learn more than west Africa countries(Tunisia, Morocco,..)

      cause these countries dialects spell the letters and words slowly and clearly in general .

      Also
      It’s good to know

      Arabic speakers from west Africa tend to understand arabic speakers “Leavants, Iraqi” much easier than the oppesite do.

      Best wishes for you to accomplish what you aim to do.

      Reply
      1. If you want to understand the quran. Learn classical/modern standard arabic (called fus-ha in arabic) and forget dialects all together

        Reply
        1. Can you please help and tell me where to start

          Reply
      2. What is KSA Renad?

        I am learning MSA and I study grammar, listen intently to news videos and make transcripts if there’s no subtitles, and read them out, trying to mimic the pronunciation. My reading and writing is pretty good. I have one book on colloquial Egyptian – “a transformational grammar of spoken egyptian” by Hilary Wise which has stuff resembling a book on thermodynamics. I also had a book on colloquial Iraqi but I seem to have lost it.

        Reply
    3. all of the algérien proplr are best

      Reply
  4. Hey Donovan,

    Thanks so much for the great post. A quick question: I totally get what you're saying about learning a dialect first, and also about avoiding transliterated books, but sometimes that can be a bit of a hard thing to do. I checked out your post on Levantine Arabic (I am learning Palestinian myself) and the books you cited were for those already know MSA. Are there any books you could recommend that teach Palestinian or Lebanese dialects that are not all transliterated? Any pointers would be much appreciated.

    Really love your work.

    Thanks,

    Fraser

    Reply
      1. Hey Donovan,

        Thanks so much for the tip – that series looks really interesting.

        All the best,

        Fraser

        Reply
  5. Love this post.I am learning Morocaan dialect via facebook and yes,the best way is to *become* Morocaan……..I speak English,French,some Spanish and am starting German

    Reply
    1. Thanks Charlene!

      All the best with your Moroccan 🙂

      Reply
      1. Wow, I loved your article! I am searching for the best online learning sites, my plan is to become fluent in Arabic (language and culture as well). Thank you so much for your work!

        Reply
  6. This is exactly what I needed for a fresh start in Arabic. I tried to start with MSA but lost motivation…

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  7. Your article is spot on! I'm the son of an Arabic native speaker, but grew up in an English-speaking house. As a result, I grew up HEARING Palestinian Arabic and READING Qur'anic Arabic. Total disconnect. I went to college and took three semesters of Modern Standard Arabic. More disconnect! I did not move forward in TWENTY years toward fluency because I had low proficiency in THREE Arabics! I finally moved over to Palestinian Arabic to learn that there are THREE Palestinian Arabics: Mádani (urban, esp. in Jaffa and Jerusalem), Fellá7 (rural), and Bádawi (nomadic). All three are mutually intelligible, but one is pigeon-holed by other Palestinians depending on which Palestinian Arabic said person uses! I stuck with Mádani Palestinian Arabic and my proficiency skyrocketed. A couple of my own suggestions beyond your article: (1) get Arabic writing capability on your computer so you get away from transliteration sooner than later, (2) learn how to write in Arabic by writing English words using Arabic letters (by reading back English words with Arabic phonics rules, you'll develop an Arabic accent much faster that way), (3) think in triliteral roots (same as in Hebrew) and you'll remember words better, (4) learn early on how to use an Arabic dictionary by using the triliteral roots, (5) learn proverbs — that always impresses Arabs! I am most amused that that the Palestinian Israeli singer Mira Awad is teaching her fellow Israeli singer Noa Palestinian Arabic though Noa is the daughter of Yemeni Jews. DRAMATICALLY different Arabics!! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Could you (or anyone else) expand on point (2)? I’m not sure I follow what you are saying…

      Reply
  8. If you're in the U.S. and have a library card, I recommend checking out Mango Language's website. They have language lessons for several dialects. I'm currently working through their Levantine series, they have several units, supposedly focusing on how it's spoken in Damascus. It's like Rosetta and Pimsleur in that they are heavy in repetition and listening but they also put everything on the screen in Arabic script, which makes it easy to take screenshots for flash cards. Clicking the word gives you the transliteration with an accent note. The lessons also give occasional grammatical and cultural notes. I've combined it with the Syrian Colloquial course that Donovan mentions above, Mango is great as it provides much more listening practice and a different perspective on cultural aspects.

    Reply
  9. Yes yes yes, I went through the same journey with MSA although as you say, after a year I did totally get the shape and grammatical structure of the language – just could barely speak a word! I then focused on Lebanese Arabic at a great language school in Beirut called Saifi – and now I can speak to an advanced level. I WISH more Arabic teachers would just give up on the MSA – whenever I speak about this issue to people it's always Arabic people who disagree and say NO you must learn MSA even when they themselves probably forgot all the grammar years ago!

    Reply
  10. if you want to speak with native Arabic speaker just add me on Skype
    Ibrahim Yousef

    Reply
    1. Hi Ibrahim, i am interested in Palestinian dialect. Is it your language? I live in Jerusalem. Can teach English, Hebrew, Russian in exchange. Thanks!!! Ida

      Reply
    2. Ibrahim, can I add you on Skype?

      Reply
  11. Interesting … But I still think the learning method depends on what you intend to do with the language : I first learned MSA and then quickly tried to acquire a dialect for obvious communicative reasons and never regretted it.
    For two main reasons : the first one because MSA strangely helped me learning 2-3 dialects very quickly by being a sort of “base” or “glue” on which I piled up my dialects, and the second reason is because my life would be miserable without books and news and written stuff. Talking with people is not enough 😉 And since everything written is in MSA, if I hadn’t learned it I would feel I missed on most of the things I loved in Arabic culture and the Arab world.
    The only good thing of having first learned only MSA in my first year is to have let me the time to choose what part of the Arab world (which was all the same to me in the beginning) I loved the most, and then I went head-on with the appropriate dialect (at the time, the levantine one, now I’ve switched to Gulf dialects).
    And btw in certain parts of the Arab world people can totally speak to you in MSA when they see you’re a foreigner (they assume you don’t know their dialect), it’s funny and weird, but why not, it does help the poor Arabic student who never had any dialect lessons.
    Anyway, thank you for the post, I love reading about other people crazy about Arabic ! And points 4, 5 and 9 are so spot on, and so often sadly overlooked …

    Reply
  12. Hey Donovan. I agree about the importance of learning the arabic alphabet. I also think it’s important to learn how to type the arabic alphabet, in this day and age when we probably type more than handwrite. Myself, I like to type arabic letters into Google Translate because it’s instant and doesn’t require any keyboard configuration.

    What do you think of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyldgH6pzmc which is an Arabic teacher arguing that it’s better to learn Standard Arabic before any dialect?

    Reply
    1. Arabic teachers always argue that MSA should be learned first.

      As I often say, the problem is that native Arabic speakers are raised to believe that MSA is real Arabic and that everyone can communicate in it which is completely false. Also, she says two Arabs from different places communicate to each other in MSA and I’m not sure why because (except for very formal situations) this is simply untrue.

      Most Arabs can’t communicate in MSA – especially those who haven’t been educated well in it. It’s just not a natively spoken language anywhere.

      Reply
      1. Completely agree! Learn a colloquial first, and then MSA, i.e. in the same order as Arabs 🙂

        Reply
  13. hi , Im Ibrahim from Jordan I speak Arabic but I want to improve my English if any body want to learn Arabic ( Jordan or Palestine dialect ) just send a friend request to me in facebook but” he should speak English fluently”.

    Reply
    1. Hi, my English is fluent and i would like to have a tandem partner. We could have regular Skype session. What do you think?

      Reply
    2. Ibrahim, I’m fluent, with a slight scottish accent. I would love to learn Palestinian/Levantine or Gulf Arabic. Will I send you a friend request?

      Reply
    3. I’m fluent, with a slight scottish accent. I would love to learn Palestinian/Levantine or Gulf Arabic. Will I send you a friend request?

      Reply
  14. Hi Donovan,

    Thanks so much for the advice, it’s really useful!

    I am currently working in East Africa but would like to work in the Middle East in the future, which is why I’m considering learning Arabic. Do you know what accent is spoken in Lebanon and Jordan? Or what accent most people there would understand? Would Egyptian Arabic be an option?

    Many thanks in advance.

    Reply
  15. what is the dialect of UAE?

    Reply
    1. Khaleeji/Gulf Arabic (broadly), but Emirati, specifically. It’s most similar to Saudi Arabic if you’re comparing dialects.

      Reply
  16. I think the MSA/dialect argument depends a lot of your purpose for learning Arabic. For me, I want to be literate. When I learn a language, I want to be able to engage with its literature and I like to read broadly more than speak (this is my personality – I’m not that gregarious).
    Also, with regards to dialects. If you want to learn Egyptian Arabic, maybe you can gather a decent variety of resources, but, I mean, Arabic resources suck in general without trying to find a variety of resources for a specific dialect. My husband speaks Arabic, but there are zero resources available in his dialect. I’ve just studied MSA and then listened and observed the differences and how to adapt.

    Reply
  17. Beautiful article

    Although I’m Lebanese, I have never understood why would someone who wanted to speak with the locals learn MSA/Classical Arabic.

    But when someone reaches a higher level, a bit of knowledge of MSA/Classical Arabic will be necessary because street signs are usually not written in dialects.

    I believe a lot of native teachers don’t appreciate dialects because this is what we were taught. Arabs are taught that the dialects are a cheap way to make ‘real’ Arabic less important, and that dialects are merely made-up languages whose origin is Classical Arabic. Whether this claim is true or not, we all tend to believe so. Another reason is perhaps because we are never taught our dialects. We acquire them from our parents, so we are usually not aware of their grammatical rules.

    Good job learning Arabic anyway!

    Reply
  18. Thanks for your helpful posts Donovan. I just started my Arabic language learning journey a couple of months ago. I’m taking an intensive Arabic course at the New School University in New York. Our teacher is Palestinian, so we are learning the spoken Levantine dialect, but also covering MSA for reading and writing. A friend of mine at another university learned only MSA and then went to Jordan on vacation, where locals would often laugh at him when he spoke because it sounded so unnaturally high-falutin’. Haha

    Reply
    1. I speak MSA and the first time I spoke Arabic outside of class I got laughed at too. But now a lot of people are impressed “Oh she speaks fusha like in the univerisity!”. And all the arabs I have talked to (except two) have been able to communicate with me in MSA without problem.

      Reply
  19. Great post, I love your approach and emphasis on assimilation. I’m starting to learn Arabic for work, I’m in the US and my company is soon opening offices in Dubai and I’d like to position myself for a future working there. My question is if I should focus on Emirati Arabic. I have friends from Syria and I LOVE the feeling & sound of Levantine, and the resources are pretty plentiful for Levantine. Aside from Youtube, Emirati Arabic feels slim on resources. Would Levantine serve me well as I’m getting into Dubai or would I be better served to make do with the Emirati resources available? Thanks! –Joe

    Reply
  20. I think the MSA/dialect argument depends a lot of your purpose for learning Arabic. For me, I want to be literate. When I learn a language, I want to be able to engage with its literature and I like to read broadly more than speak (this is my personality – I’m not that gregarious).
    Also, with regards to dialects. If you want to learn Egyptian Arabic, maybe you can gather a decent variety of resources, but, I mean, Arabic resources suck in general without trying to find a variety of resources for a specific dialect. My husband speaks Arabic, but there are zero resources available in his dialect. I’ve just studied MSA and then listened and observed the differences and how to adapt.

    Reply
  21. Hi Donovan. I began my learning experience learning MSA, thinking I was getting somewhere [although slowly!]. Then I found myself in southern Beirut, struggling to make myself understood, and realising just how different a dialect is from classical Arabic. From now on, I’m going to focus solely on what I need to learn in order to communicate with the people I will be surrounded by next time I visit.

    Reply
  22. Hi Donovan,
    Great article. Thank you for writing it.

    If I want to learn, say, Levantine Arabic for speaking but also want to read books & the internet in Arabic, watch tv & movies in Arabic, watch/read the news in Arabic, etc, (i.e., be fully functional in Arabic), isn’t it quite necessary to also learn MSA? And if so, then is it still better to learn dialect first?

    What should be the strategy for someone who wants to go from beginner to fully functional? MSA first? Dialect first? Both simultaneously? Or is MSA never necessary?

    thank you.

    Reply
    1. The news is in MSA
      Music, movies, internet etc… each country uses their own dialect

      Reply
  23. These are all great principles for learning Arabic. One that I’d add is: Invest time in learning Arabic when you first arrive. If you delay it to “set yourself up” or “get used to the place”, two things will happen:
    1) You’ll get busy with other things and won’t devote sufficient time to it later.
    2) You’ll establish social connections only with expats and locals who speak English. That will be hard to break out of later.

    Reply
  24. Maybe I would also add: Devote time to learning Arabic in a structured way. Don’t think you will just “pick it up” only by social contact. There’s a variety of learning methods with different approaches – group/individual lessons, tutor, GPA, TPR, etc. Social contact is essential, but in order to practice what you’ve learnt and pick up new vocab/expressions to ask about in your class. Don’t listen to well meaning locals (sometimes your local boss) who tell you can pick up the language just by going to the market, talking to colleagues, etc.

    Reply
  25. Wow, I just found your post and webpage and I’m so thankful!

    I accidentally(!) started learning Levantine Arabic surrounded by friends in language cafés – and suddenly I realized I had started to learn like a child, out of pure joy! Listening, asking, repeating and suddenly identifying words, grammar, verbs. It was the most wonderful feeling, falling in love with a language and a culture through your friends – all at once. This was about 1,5 years ago and the few words, verbs and sentences I have learned (and been practicing a lot) since then has made me so happy.

    I assume already having experienced the ‘learning language through culture’ once with Spanish (actively studying the language and living in South America), had already opened up that “aha-feeling” and created new “rooms in the brain” for new sounds, grammar, rhythm of talking and… That is was actually possible incorporating a new language in once’s life.

    In other words – your words, advices and thoughts about language and culture deeply touched my heart on this particular Friday morning 🙂 Hopefully for many more. These experiences have changed my life completely, and I’m so grateful that you’re sharing these thoughts, helping to establish a new image/mind set of what a type of experience learning a language could really be.

    Thank you for putting this post together and for all the great advices on your webpage. You’ve got me convinced that I can and should start learning the alphabet(!), that I should stick to the Levantine dialect, go all in on find good material/webpages, teachers (or perhaps create a study group with some fellow students!) And – most important – that my constant thoughts about culture and language assimilation are worth continue to explore within linguistics, cultural and social anthropology 🙂

    Greetings from a fellow language enthusiast and student of Linguistics and in Sweden

    Reply
  26. Hi,
    What would you advice me, if I want to communicate in Arabic for professional purposes while still living in Europe?

    Reply
  27. You are misguiding people, formal/classical Arabic is the most eloquent form of Arabic, by learning it, it becomes easier to understand The Quran and the Ahadeeth… and any form of Arabic literatute.. choosing a dialect wont help u if u go to another Arab country unless u knew classical Arabic as it is understood by everyone.. another thing is informal Arabic does not follow Nahw(Arabic for grammer) or Sarf(morphology) rules.. thats why in every country its different and hard to understand unless you speak classical/formal Arabic which is generally understood everywhere in the world.

    Reply
    1. That is not true… as a native Arab I can tell you, i hardly know ANYONE who is fluent in MSA or who know grammer (Nahw) properly. It’s outdated, and complicated, and you cannot have a modern conversation in MSA due to the lack of a lot of newer words

      Reply
  28. You are misguiding people, formal/classical Arabic is the most eloquent form of Arabic, by learning it, it becomes easier to understand The Quran and the Ahadeeth… and any form of Arabic literatute.. choosing a dialect wont help u if u go to another Arab country unless u knew classical Arabic as it is understood by everyone.. another thing is informal Arabic does not follow Nahw(Arabic for grammer) or Sarf(morphology) rules.. thats why in every country its different and hard to understand unless you speak classical/formal Arabic which is generally understood everywhere in the world.

    Reply
    1. Sorry, Abdun, but my experience is such that I can say categorically that formal/classical Arabic is NOT understood easily everywhere in the Arabic-speaking world. Words can be different, and not every Arabic-speaking person uses ‘perfect’ grammar. Sometimes, one needs to learn and understand the way people speak in their daily lives, rather than how they ‘should’ speak, according to a textbook. The same applies with English (my native tongue), where speakers rarely speak as one might expect if one had learned the language strictly from a textbook.

      Reply
      1. My experience is the opposite. Most Arabs I speak to know fus-ha and can converse well in it

        Reply
  29. Hi, it is really interesting how everyone is writing about learning the Arabic language from you own experience. I just wanted to add that there are more than 20 different dialect are spoken in the Arab world , Arabic native speaker would understand most of the dialects as they grow up watching Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese movies and listening to songs with different dialects. But those who were born in USA or Australia, they would never understand other dialects, as they grew and learnt what they hear from their parents.
    the fact is we have to learn the MSA as it the language of teaching and learning , reading and writing, and the language we use everyday in our life, we cannot write it. however some people use it in the social media, it is very frustrating and can hardly understand what they mean. in my opinion you should learn MSA if you really want to learn the Arabic language, as MSA unites the Arab world together. If they can’t understand when they communicate in their dialect, then they use MSA instead. Each of the Arab counties use different terms and expressions which it is hard to understand. Hence, learn and speak the MSA and if they don’t understand you it means they are illiterate, and there are not much of them. and those who laugh about hearing you talking in MSA, that’s because they are not used to hear it more often, it is mostly used in formal situations.

    Reply
    1. But a lot of them can’t understand MSA it’s like speaking Old English like back in Shakespeare days. The only Arabic that they all know is Egyptian I heard. It’s understood all over

      Reply
      1. That’s not true… all Arabs can fully comprehend MSA. Grammar might be slightly off, speaking might require some thinking of how to form the sentences. Writing is the most difficult… but everyone can pretty much understand and speak it.

        Reply
  30. Actually, you can ‘literally’ become an Arab.

    The Prophet (saw) said that Arabism was not something passed by blood from father to son, but was in the language (and culture). He himself coming from what was described as an Adnani tribe, which was itself an ‘Arab tribe’ but not of ‘Arab’ origin – they were in effect Arabised Arabs. The only true ‘Arabs’ that can lay claim to an ‘ethnic Arabism’ if you like came from a small pocket in Yemen. Therefore, the majority of ‘Arabs’ are linguistic/cultural Arabs – although most don’t like knowing or being told such things.

    Reply
  31. I’m taking Arabic in high school, and we’re learning MSA. I have a tutor, but he also teaches me MSA. I was wondering if in college, do you study a dialect or MSA? I’m interested in going to college for Arabic language and culture. Also, what would be the best dialect to learn for a student?

    Reply
    1. MSA is usually taught at college level.

      Completely depends on your own personal goals though. Are you learning the language to speak with people? Dialect.

      Learning so you can read? MSA.

      Reply
  32. Very nice tips I use language apps and almost every last person wants to teach me MSA I’m like no I want to learn Levetine dielect. They keep pushing MSA tho and will even lie and say ok I will teach you Syrian but don’t know that I know a few phrases in MSA and Syrian and they end up teaching me MSA 😂 Then I tell them “well that’s how you would say it in MSA I thought it was said like this *****” and they go “o it’s all the same” 😒… Ugh… and I’m having a problem with speaking it’s like I can understand but I can’t speak back or remember how to say any words or put sentence together… it’s like I’m learning and understand but not talking..

    Reply
  33. This is a great resource! Thank you! I teach elementary school and next year I will have several Arabic speaking families in my class. I’m excited to learn more about their culture and would love to learn Arabic to help me connect more with the families. I have my first assignment though – I need to find out where the families are mostly from so that I can focus on one language. I’m bookmarking this page! : )

    Reply
  34. Ya ahe ,
    You definitely know what you are saying. I wish i could read this at the beginning of my arabic learning adventure that brings me to this mud i am in rightnow. But i will make a fresh start with you thank you very much for all the information.
    Regards

    Reply
    1. Thanks Yigit.

      All the best with your Arabic.

      Reply
  35. So you acknowledge how sacred and in high regard modern standard/classical is held by natives and you claim that part of your method is to respect the culture you are immersing in and learning. Yet you completely contradict these two points when you then speak about classical in a completely disrespectful way. Your disdain of MSA/CA is the sole reason I discourage anyone from your site

    Reply
    1. When did I say I have disdain for MSA/CA? I never did. In fact, I love Classical Arabic.

      If you actually read what I said, you’d see that I said nobody speaks MSA as a native language and therefore it makes no sense to learn it for conversation. Learn a spoken dialect so you can communicate with people naturally.

      Reply
  36. Hello Everyone! I work in the international trade, I use foreign languages every day. I speak Polish (native), English, Russian, German an a little bit of French. I became fascinated with the Arabic world some time ago and started to learn Arabic. All previous languages I learnt by myself, after some time of self-study, when I reached some degree of being understood and understand basic things I usually went abroad to master the language. I spent a year in the USA, a year in Russia, 2-3 months in Germany etc. I plan to do the same with Arabic – learn by myself and then go to Egipt to study more. My choise was to use the Assimil book “Arabic with Ease”, which worked very well e.g. for my French. After a few months of learning MSA Arabic from Assimil I feel that I’m a little bit not on a right track. My main goal is to communicate and I have a feeling that repeating the sentences from Assimil is like learning esperanto. I decided to change the book and leave Assimil for another book based on a real, spoken language.

    Reply
  37. I don’t want to change the way I study the language, it works very well for me. First I do a self-study and then I go abroad. After coming back I attend some lecturers at my home country, read newspapers, books, watch TV etc.

    Could you please help me?
    Which of these two books will be better for a CLEAR self-study:
    – Kalimni ‘Arabi Bishweesh
    OR
    – Kalaam Gamiil: An Intensive Course in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

    when I know already the alphabet (I hate Latin transliteration), understand some words and sentences, can use a dictionary, but still I am at a beginning of the journey. Due to the work I do I can devote only some time to learning (evenings only).

    Reply
  38. Hey there. I agree with the concept of assimilation.. In fact that is how I learned the languages which I do speak and it is the most respectful way towards a foreign culture.
    I do have a question about arabic cultures. From my experience in Latin America learning Spanish, I have run into many very uncomfortable and almost dangerous incidents as a white, blue eyed, blond haired female. In Colombia, I got used to the constant whistling and cat calls, but there were still times when I got followed around or taken to a motel, without knowing that motels are only for having sex, or being hit on by a 60 year old man, who I was dependent on at one point and had no way to get out of the situation. At the end of the adventure, I survived and got to know a lot of wonderful people, fell in love and got a better understanding latin america.. However it has left me with an amount of respect for the unknown and a need to recover from the constant blows to my naivety.
    So I want to ask about the arab culture. Is it easier to assimilate for a man than a woman? I think this must really depend from country to country, but if somebody could let me know about their experience as a woman in one of the arab speaking parts of the world, then I will highly appreciate your insight. Thank you.

    Reply
  39. Hello

    What you’ve said about modern standard arabic is so misleading. It is like saying that speaking proper english is archaic and too complicated.
    Modern standard arabic is the basis for any dialect you find, it is beautifully complex and we’re lucky that it is still taught and learn by so many people. Would you rather learn slang french or proper/school french ?

    Reply
    1. False equivalence. You missed the point entirely.

      Nobody anywhere on earth speaks MSA as a first, native language. Therefore it’s nobody’s mother tongue.

      Reply
  40. I’d be very happy to help anyone who’s wishing to learn Arabic and to have a conversation either in Fusha or Moroccan dialect, in exchange we can talk in English as well because I want to practice mine for educational reasons. Anyone interested send me a message on my facebook account.

    Reply
    1. I’m interested in darija

      Reply
  41. Hi,
    I would be really grateful if anyone can help me with this, I want to learn an Arabic dialect for professional and religious reasons like reading the Quran, I’ve gone through the Egyptian dialect but it seems weird to me to pronoun jameel as gameel which is the case for all jeem(j) words in egyptian arabic. Can you tell me which dialects pronunciation is closest to Quran. Kindly consider the request that i am talking about pronunciation. Which dialects are you offering to teach and how much do they cost?

    Reply
    1. This is same question I have. I hope Donovan will reply.

      Reply
    2. Hi. I am hoping to be able to eventually read the Quran in Arabic too. If anyone can do regular Skype sessions with me and teach me a dialect closest to that in which the Quran is written (which I assume would be Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha)), I am willing to teach English in exchange.

      I am looking for a dedicated individual who can do Skype sessions with me for four to eight months potentially. Let me know. Thanks!

      Reply
  42. Does anybody know what dialect people speak in the United Arab Emirates? i want to visit there.

    Reply
    1. Emirati Arabic (one of the Gulf dialects).

      Reply
  43. Really enjoyed your writing, thank you for sharing your experience!! Currently I am learning MSA, simply for the purpose of being able to read newspapers and know the basic level. It may seem pointless, and I’m sure I’ll have to start over with the dialect version, but I’d be remiss not to do both! Planning on conquering MSA first.

    My question is what do you think of learning the Levantine version? Will different parts of the Middle East be able to understand me? Will Gulf areas be able to understand me, and vice versa? How about Egypt? Levantine areas of the Middle East is where my interest lies, but maybe it is best to go Egyptian, since I hear it is the most widely understood? Just curious on your opinion of Levantine.

    Thanks and thank you for your article!

    Victoria

    Reply
  44. I was just wondering whether it is valuable to learn Arabic as a white female from The Unites States. I really enjoy learning foreign languages and about about different cultures. I have been interested in Arabic for quite some time and even took measures to learn some Arabic when I was in high school, but was quickly dissuaded. I mean no offense, but given cultural stereotypes about Arab views toward women, would it be a valuable time investment to learn Arabic if I wanted to make a career out of my passion for foreign languages/cultures? I appreciate any feedback!

    Reply
    1. It would be a waste of time if you are not planning to use it for work or business relations. You would be better off learning Spanish or Chinese, two of the most common languages found in the America today. If you learn Chinese that is not only gravy, but sets you apart from the crowd. Not many Americans can speak Chinese. It will be more and more in demand much like Spanish

      Reply
      1. Why is it a waste of time?

        There are well over a million native Arabic speakers in the US.

        Reply
  45. Which dialect would you recommend for someone who is learning for the purpose of reading Qur’an as well becoming conversationally fluent at the same time. For example which dialect would be closest without completely confusing me? Thanks

    Reply
    1. Learn Classical Arabic for Quran, and a spoken dialect for speaking.

      So basically, you’re learning two languages simultaneously. More of a challenge but worth it.

      Reply
  46. Hi! I’m a high school student, and I’m considering going into international relations. Because of that, there are a few languages I want to learn or get better at, one being Arabic. The argument against learning MSA first makes a lot of sense to me, but since I’m planning on using it primarily in a diplomatic context, would you say that I should learn MSA first?

    Reply
    1. Hi Sarah,

      In your case, yes MSA would be essential. But depending on the specifics of your job role, you might need a spoken dialect as well (e.g. if you were working in an embassy and dealing with local people applying for visas, you’d definitely need to understand the local language).

      Reply
  47. Hi Donovan
    A very nice post here, specially for anyone trying to learn spoken (colloquial) Arabic

    Reply
  48. it seems to be true but need high concentration than it expected

    Reply
  49. Which dialect would most refugees (in Germany) understand? I want to learn Arab so I can help people better

    Reply
  50. Hey Donovan,
    I’m moving to Cairo real soon, and I just came upon your article, it was so helpful! So thanks. I was wondering if you know where I could find movies, (translated or native) in Egyptian Arabic? Or do you have suggestions for specific movies? Thanks!

    Reply
  51. Other methods other than paying? Not the richest person in the world unfortunately…

    Also, what would you say would be the closest to the Palestinian Dialect?

    Reply
  52. Just came across this epic post. Loved it.

    Getting ready to get back into arabic, full time, in Egypt from 2019. I’m going to carefully analyze this and a couple of other resources.

    You guys who write “this is how I’d have done it” articles are the best. Thanks!

    Reply
  53. You do not have to take Arab culture in order to learn Arabic. You don’t have to assimilate. To say otherwise is false. That is like telling English learners “you have to assimilate into white culture in order to learn English”. False

    Reply
    1. Wrong. To learn a language properly, you must assimilate into the host culture.

      And what is “white culture”? Putting aside your racism for a moment, you mean British/American/Australian, etc. culture? Same thing applies.

      Cultural assimilation is necessary to learn the language properly.

      Reply
    2. It’s like saying “I want to learn Russian, but I don’t want to know ANYTHING about Russia.”

      Then why learn the language in the first place if you’re not AT LEAST interested in the culture? It all ties together with the language somehow.

      “White culture?” Seriously, Mark? Do yourself a favor and keep your racist comment to yourself.

      With that being said, great article there. VERY informative. I was confused for a while, and tried to figure out which “type” of Arabic I should learn. But this post cleared any doubts I had. So, Thanks.

      Reply
  54. I ask you kindly to explain the difference between RocketArabic and TalkinArabic. I understand the essentials of both of the courses, but if I am a total beginner, which one is more suitable for me?

    Reply
  55. *super informative. I love language as well and probably the only student who took Latin for fun 20 years ago!!

    So, would your recommendation be to learn Egyptian dialect if you want to converse with a (possible) larger population? Then, later learn MSA to read and such……..

    We have several years to learn Arabic and the general area is within the Egyptian dialect..

    Reply
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