In the first part of this series, I gave you an overview of the challenges of learning Arabic and discussed the best ways to develop your speaking skills. I also recommended some learning materials that you could start with and mentioned that you must have a goal in order to succeed in learning a language.
In this piece, I am going to clarify the difference between written and spoken Arabic by offering you a more precise classification of Arabic than you can find elsewhere. I expect my classification to provide you with a better understanding of your object of study, which you will need in order to follow my advice on the most practical method of learning Arabic.
The biggest obstacle for learners of Arabic is that the kind of knowledge they gather from books is not very helpful in conversation, because nobody speaks the Arabic taught or used in books in their daily lives. Spoken Arabic varies from one Arab country to another and there is no consensus on it among Arabs. Most of them believe that their home dialect is the best to know, although dialects do not have much relevance outside of their specific areas. Moreover, dialects are both far removed from standard Arabic and markedly different from one another, which forces Arabs themselves to improvise when they speak with Arabs from other countries. They usually use a mixture of standard Arabic and Egyptian lingo that most Arabs are familiar with due to the popularity of Egypt’s early movie industry in the Arab world.
Therefore, it is safe to say that there are at least four types of Arabic: 1) Classical Arabic (CA), which was the first written version of Arabic and is only present in the Quran and classical literature nowadays; 2) Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), an updated version of Classical Arabic that is only used in the media and formal speeches; 3) Country-specific dialects (CSD), which are considerably different from MSA and are only spoken in their countries of origin; and 4) An improvised common language (ICL), which Arabs from different countries use among themselves, as their dialects are mutually incomprehensible.
In my view, it is best to start by learning standard Arabic (MSA) so that you can build a strong foundation for your grammar and vocabulary. This approach will enable you to figure out all the truncated words and incomplete grammar used by native speakers in conversation. As to your spoken Arabic, I advise you against learning any dialect, as focusing on any dialect will confine you to its specific country. Rather, if your goal is to be able to communicate with all kinds of Arabs, I recommend you to mix your own Arabic in the same way that you would mix ingredients for a combo meal. By the way, I think I have just come up with the fifth type of Arabic: Arabic Combo (AC), a form of Arabic used by non-native speakers of Arabic for communication with all Arabs (patent pending!).
An example of mixed Arabic includes my current spoken Arabic, which consists of standard Arabic and my favorite Emarati, Iraqi, Algerian, and Libyan words seasoned with some flavorful Bedouin talk that I picked up during my desert adventures. Thus, I have discovered that my standard Arabic, Emarati and Iraqi mix is enough for a conversation with most Arabs, my knowledge of the Emarati and Bedouin dialects allows me to have a proper conversation with Gulf Arabs, and my Algerian can take me quite far in three different countries: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. It has also been interesting to discover that the Libyan dialect is not as different from standard Arabic as other Arabs believe it is, while Egyptian is quite hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t watched Egyptian movies since they were born. In short, the inclusion of dialectal words into your vocabulary and their adequate combination in conversation will enable you to speak with Arabs from various countries.
After you have come to grips with the diversity of Arabic and have come up with a goal to keep you going, decide how much time you want to dedicate to this project on a daily basis and stick to it! In other words, you need to be disciplined and consistent; otherwise, it’s not going to work out for you, even if you’ve got everything else it takes. For example, if you decide to study for half an hour every day, make sure it’s at least half an hour every day! Any gaps and chopped off sessions will affect your focus and progress.
Until next time, when I will introduce you to the importance of learning the alphabet, it would be useful for you to familiarize yourself with the classification of Arabic that I have proposed herein. Most experts divide Arabic into Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, while they only mention the various dialects in passing. I have noticed that this superficial classification is confusing and misleading for people who want to learn Arabic, so I decided to offer you a more accurate and comprehensive classification of Arabic, based on all of its existing forms. I believe that this classification is important to know in the beginning, as it clarifies the fact that it is not important to learn any individual dialect and that spoken Arabic is a matter of improvisation.
Amalia Costin is a language teacher specializing in English, French, and Arabic. She has a B.A. degree in English and Norwegian, and an M.A. degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University. She is fluent in several languages, but Arabic is her greatest linguistic achievement so far, as it was the hardest one to master. Amalia also has a passion for writing, which she considers to be the best way to share knowledge and debate ideas with people from all over the world.