How To Learn Arabic Dialects – A Live Talk From Berlin

If you’re interested in how to learn Arabic dialects, this is for you.

I lived in Egypt from 2014-15, and during that time I had to figure out fundamental questions like:

  • What is Arabic, and what are the dialects?
  • Should I learn a dialect, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)?
  • What are the best resources for learning Arabic dialects?

This talk, given at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin 2015, describes this journey and what I learnt.

The talk lasts 30 minutes and is followed by 15 minutes of Q&A.

If you’d prefer to read the transcript, it is given below. The transcript can also be downloaded as a free PDF, along with the slides from the presentation (scroll to the bottom for this).

Links to all Arabic resources mentioned in the talk are given at the end of the article.


How to learn Arabic dialects

Good afternoon.

Thank you so much for coming. Firstly, I cannot believe there are so many people here. Not only is it the last talk on the last day, but I found out a couple of hours ago there is a talk on almost exactly the same topic. So thanks very much for coming, and I really appreciate it. This is a talk on all about how to learn Arabic dialects.

Just before I get started, I just want to clarify a couple of things. First of all, I don’t consider myself an expert in Arabic at all. I hope to become one, but at this stage this is going to be a talk all about my experiences of understanding Arabic and getting used to what exactly Arabic is since I moved to Cairo in Egypt last September.

Also, I have a lot of lovely images in this presentation. Not all of them are mine. I just wanted to make clear that they are all licensed under Creative Commons. If you like to get the links to any of the images, I am going to make the presentation available on my website so you can download and check them
out.

First of all, this word [“Arabic”], I’m not going to say it, I’m not going to say anything about it, but I’d like you just to turn to the person next to you and tell them what comes to mind for you when you see this word.

Let’s just take a couple of ideas. Someone just shout out whatever you would like to share. I will repeat it so everyone can here.

[Images:]

  • Arab people
  • Humus
  • The script
  • The many Arabic languages
  • Clothing

Because what I found when I started talking about Arabic and writing about Arabic, I get met with a flood of confusion from so many different places. I think there is a lot of ambiguity around Arabic. Especially the Arabic language and exactly what it is. That is what I hope to address in this talk a little bit. For people who are not familiar with Arabic, what is it and what do you need to know as someone that wants to actually learn the language.

I heard a few things here from humus to clothes to just a script. Let me show you what comes to my mind when I think of this word.

[Pictures]

Some of these you might have been expecting. Some of these perhaps you were not expecting so much. I think the main thing about Arabic is the chances are that whatever your perception of Arabic is, it’s almost certainly very, very different from what an Arabic person or the locals in Arabic countries conceive of Arabic as being. Specifically, as you might of guessed from the topic of this talk, the main thing that we need to clear up is the difference between Arabic and Arabic dialects. This talk is all about Arabic dialects and exactly what that is.

Here is a guy from Egypt. If you asked him what Arabic is, what do you think he’d say?

My language

Different kinds of Arabic

So the chances are that if you sat down with this guy and said, “Look, what is Arabic?” He would probably tell you two things. The first of which, being Quaranic Arabic and Classical Arabic are both the same thing, the origin of the language from the religious text, the kind of foundation of the whole Arabic culture, language and religion.

He might also talk to you about this, Modern Standard Arabic or MSA. Any ideas what this is?

Not Egyptian

Members of the media

Not exactly. Modern Standard Arabic is the closest that you get to an official Arabic language. As the picture suggests, if you pick up a newspaper written in Arabic, this is what you’re going to see. If you watch the TV news, this is the language that you’re going to hear spoken. If you work in some certain
government offices, you might speak with other officials perhaps in this language.

This is essentially derived from classical Arabic, as far as a lot of the same grammatical constructions, a lot of the same vocabulary, but it is also borrowed quite heavily from the dialects that you have around the Arab world. It has some of the more modern concepts that wouldn’t have existed back in the time of classical Arabic.

This guy would have told you that for him Arabic is classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. These are obviously not the exact words that he would use in Arabic but that’s how they’re known in English.

I’ve got a question for you. In how many countries around the world is Modern Standard Arabic an official language? Not necessarily the primary language but an official language? What would you think?

I heard zero.

Eight

Twenty-eight

Pretty good. It is actually 27 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have Modern Standard Arabic as an official language. Two hundred ninety million people, it’s a lot of people, have Modern Standard Arabic as their official language.

On the face of it, it seems simple. Right? You want to learn Arabic, so this is the language you learn. Right? It’s the official language of all these countries. Yet, as we are going to look at now, this is really where a lot of the confusion starts.

Before I started this talk, when I started thinking about what I was going to talk about, I went to the Facebook group of the Polyglot Gathering. I just posted a question and I said, “Hey guys, I’m going to talk about Arabic. What do you want to know? Give me your questions.” These are the kind of questions
that I got.

Can I learn Egyptian without studying standard Arabic?

I heard I should skip Modern Standard Arabic and go straight to dialect.

Then the other side of the coin.

I would prefer to learn Modern Standard Arabic, but is there any sense in that?

These are the kind of questions and the kind of confusion that arises from possibly some of the things that you might be thinking right now.

Let’s explain. For Arabic people on the whole, and this is of course a generalization, as we said before, Modern Standard Arabic, this [picture] is what they would consider to be Arabic. Again, this is their cultural heritage.

If you asked this guy, “Hey, I’m from the UK. I want to learn Arabic. What should I learn?” What’s he going to tell me?

The same thing.

On the whole, of all the people I’ve ever spoken to, I would say at last 90 percent of the people say you have learn Modern Standard Arabic because this is Arabic.

But, what language does he speak on a daily basis with his friends and family, at work? Does he speak Modern Standard Arabic? No. What does he speak?

Egyptian. He’s from Egypt. He speaks the Egyptian dialect of Arabic.

So what does that mean exactly? Well basically, it’s closely related to Modern Standard Arabic but dialects, as in all places, have a lot of idiosyncrasies from the local region. They have their own words for lots of different things, some slightly different grammar. Obviously, there are certain accents. Every
country has its own accent.

He would tell you to learn something essentially that he does not speak himself. This is where the sort of confusion comes in.

Let’s talk a little bit about how this actually might manifest itself because it’s quite confusing. This is Magdi. He’s a good friend of mine. I don’t know if Jan is here, but Jan met Magdi when he came to visit in Cairo. Magdi runs the local shop right around the corner from where we live in Cairo with his Adham.

We have a good chat. Every day when I get back from work, I stop in and buy a few things and we have a chat. We would talk in, what do you expect?

In Egyptian Arabic, exactly.

We’re having a chat and eventually I’m going to go in. I’m going to pick up a few things that I want to buy from the shop. I’m going to take them to the till. He’s going to add it all up and he’s going to tell me how much money I owe him. We’re talking all this time in Egyptian Arabic. Then when it comes time to give me the bill and to tell me how much money I need to give him, can you guess what happens?

He switches, and he will tell me the amount of money that he wants me to give him, the total of the bill, in Modern Standard Arabic. At first, I just didn’t know what he was talking about because I hadn’t really touched Modern Standard Arabic so I didn’t know the numbers.

Why would you think that this would happen? Why would you do that?

Official transaction

Because he’s reading the numbers

The point is, when it comes down to money, money is a difficult, touchy subject in a lot of cases. It’s not something to be taken lightly. When it comes time to talk about money, he thinks to himself this is a formal situation. I need to behave properly. So he will switch to Modern Standard Arabic in order just to tell me the amount of money I need to give him. This gives you a really interesting insight into the way that they think about the Egyptian dialect and the Modern Standard Arabic that he knows.

Again, if Modern Standard Arabic is important like this, surely this is what we should be learning. You want to learn Arabic. Surely, you should learn Modern Standard Arabic because you hear things like this. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you can be understood anywhere in the Arab world by most people. Most people will tell you this. Is it true?

No

Actually, it is true. On the whole, if you learn to speak Modern Standard Arabic, then wherever you go in the Arabic world, people by and large will understand you. But, I want to ask you a question. You’re all experienced language learners. You’re going to learn a new language. How would you feel about wanting to be understood anywhere you go in the Arab world by people who don’t speak that language themselves? Is that something you would aspire too?

For me it’s not. The other thing is, for Egyptian for example, you could say if you learn Modern Standard Arabic, then you can go anywhere in the Arab world and you’ll be fine. People will understand you.

What about Egyptians? Take Egyptians as an example. When they go to a different country, when they go to Jordan or Morocco, would they suddenly switch into Modern Standard Arabic and speaking Modern Standard Arabic?

It’s possible, they might. You know I worked in Qatar before where you have Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa, and on the whole, they will speak to each other in their own dialect and it is more or less mutually intelligible with some exceptions.

I’ve actually heard of stories of people who have gone abroad to places like Egypt and Syria and they’ve done intensive Arabic courses. They’ve been studying Modern Standard Arabic for a long time. They’ve got to a very good level. Yet they will tell me that when they walk down onto the street and they ask someone directions to the local cinema or something, that person will actually turn around and laugh in their face because it’s that foreign to them in terms of something that you would speak on a daily basis. Now obviously this is an extreme example, but I’ve heard these anecdotes quite a few times.

When I think about this issue for me, the distinction between Modern Standard Arabic and the dialect, for me it always comes down to people. Just like Claudio was saying in the last talk with him, it’s all about people and wants to understand the conversation on the street. For me, this is exactly what it is for me.

This is Nada. She’s one of my best friends in Egypt. She teaches me Arabic as well. She, for me, is what it means to me to learn Arabic. She’s a real person with a real family, with real friends, with a real life, real job, and her own share of tragedies in her own personal life as well. When I think of what language does she speaks, she speaks an Egyptian dialect of Arabic and that’s what I want to learn in order to be able to communicate with my friend.

For me, when I think about this whole issue it is the dialect that I want to learn to be able to speak every day with the people that are around me. Now I can’t tell you what the right answer is for you, because we will have different situations. If you have a particular academic interest in Arabic, then it may be the case that it is better for you to learn classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic.

All I can tell you is from place of this time last year, when I was utterly confused about what I should be doing, what I should be learning, it has become very clear now. I see the whole issue quite clearly. It is all about whatever the people around me are speaking. That’s how I approach this now. That’s how I look at it.

Just to put that in perspective, of all of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa that have Modern Standard Arabic as an official language and you know what the answer is going to be now, how many people actually speak it in their daily lives with their friends and family?

None

So I’ve just given you a little bit of perspective about the distinction between Modern Standard Arabic and then the dialects and what you might have to think about if you were to approach learning Arabic. It would be really nice if it was that simply, if that was the only thing you have to worry about. Of course, it’s not. As a result, of the things that we’ve been talking about, there are a lot of other complications as well.

So if Arabic is Modern Standard Arabic, and local dialects are simply the spoken form, what happens to reading and writing in a dialect? If you were in Egypt and you’re learning Egyptian Arabic, it’s the case that you’ll almost never see Egyptian Arabic written down anywhere.

When I am at work for example, and I need to produce an official document for something in Arabic, I have to produce it Modern Standard Arabic. Whenever you see writing anywhere around, it’s almost always in Modern Standard Arabic.

If you did want to write Egyptian dialects, and you can’t do it, it’s only ever an approximation at best. What people do is they take the writing system form Modern Standard Arabic and they use that knowledge of the sounds and the letters and they kind of guess how that would translate into what they would say in their own dialect. So it’s this kind of crazy situation where you have got people that speak a language every day and yet there’s no standardized form of actually writing it.

Think. As a learner of this language that is almost never written down, what are the implications for you as a learner of the language?

Lack of resources

There is virtually no good material for learners of Arabic dialects. There are a couple of textbooks of varying quality, but in general, if you want to have any kind of authentic material or any kind of resources out there for learning the language, there’s very, very little out there at all. That presents a real problem for you when you actually set about learning to speak and to read the dialects.

What happens is you get things like this and people start to develop other ways of actually writing down the language. So you have an Arabic sentence here, and what happens with the young people, especially now around the whole Arab world, start to use a different system to write. They use this thing called
Franco-Arabic Alphabet. So reading from right to left in Arabic and then left to right with the English transcription. People develop this system because it’s a lot more convenient, not only when they are texting on their phones, but when they’re writing on Facebook and things like that.

As a result, of this general difficulty in writing down your own language, they developed this different system for communicating. Like this, there are a few others as well. The Franco-Arabic Alphabet has only certain relations to the original words themselves.

What happens is you get these kind of questions back like this. People who are learning Arabic and they come across stuff written in Franco-Arabic or even in dialect. The say, “Well I can’t figure out the original Arabic word.” Because whatever they write down in the Franco-Arabic Alphabet is not accurate. It’s not an accurate transliteration of the original Arabic word.

They also say things like, “Well, I can actually read Arabic, but people online want to write in the Latin alphabet.”

In this context, which Arabic are you referring to? Is it the dialect or MSA?

[Refers to slide with Arabic sentence written out.]

In this particular context, this is actually Egyptian Arabic that is written here. Which is, again, it is an approximation of what the person wants to say using the Arabic script.

[Refers to transliterated slide.]

This is exactly the same thing written in the Franco-Arabic Alphabet. Does that answer your question?

When the person says I can’t figure out the Arabic words, it means I can’t figure out the Egyptian words?

Yes, pretty much.

You get these problems coming out. As a learner of the dialect, you’re going to encounter this all the time. If you go onto Facebook, most people are going to be writing in the Franco-Arabic Alphabet.

In terms of my own case, when I was sort of trying to figure this out when I was starting to learn Arabic and trying to figure out all these things. Should I learn Modern Standard Arabic? Should I learn Egyptian dialect? Should I learn to write with a script or should I use Franco-Arabic? There are all these
incredibly difficult questions and very few answers out there.

What I actually did myself, was when I started learning, I used the Franco-Arabic Alphabet, because, for me, it’s all about the speaking. I want to be able to sit down and speak with people. As I am sitting down with my tutors and I’m having these conversations, what I like to do is to write down as much as possible. I couldn’t do it in the Arabic script because I had not learned it particularly well at that point and it was also very slow.

I started using the Franco-Arabic Alphabet to write down everything and make sure I had a record of the things that were being said and the things that I wanted to say. Whenever I used my flashcards, I also used the Franco-Arabic Alphabet for that. Above all, it was convenience I would say more than anything
else.

It worked well for me because what it meant was I able to start speaking with people and I would just be able to actually write stuff down. If any of you have learned Japanese or Chinese, for example, or another language with a very different alphabet, you’ll be familiar with that issue of wanting to speak with people, and wanting to write stuff down but not being competent yet in the script.

It was a really good start for me. What I found was, after I started to be able to communicate fairly well with people, I kind of reached a ceiling. I realized that the Franco-Arabic Alphabet, because it is only, again, an approximation, you’re just missing out on a lot of foundation. What I started to do was then I went back, and I learned to read and write the Arabic script properly. I started using textbooks as well to try to develop a little bit of a foundation.

It is really, difficult because I was just kind of figuring this out all along. All the time everyone was saying to me, “Oh, you should just learn Modern Standard Arabic. What are you learning this dialect for? It doesn’t make sense.” People would tell me this day after day.

One of the great byproducts of learning to read and write the Arabic script was I discovered that I absolutely love the Arabic script. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever come across. Both to read by itself but also to write is incredibly cathartic. I’m left-handed so to write from right to left is actually is absolutely a revelation. Why couldn’t English be like this.

Have you ever seen those pictures of Obama writing with his wrist around like that. I do the same thing but I find it quite easy to write in Arabic because it’s just perfectly natural. I have just found myself falling in love with the Arabic script and the different ways of actually representing it. It’s been one of the nicest things actually so far about discovering Arabic for me.

Back to this problem, if you don’t have the resources and you don’t know how to write, well how do you actually learn? For me it comes down to this kind of dichotomy. Are you are learning to speak or are you speaking to learn? Based on what I’ve been telling you so far, you ought to be able to guess that it’s this. I found myself speaking to learn.

What I mean by that is it’s very difficult to learn to speak because you don’t have those resources to build your foundation. By going out there and actually speaking, you get feedback, you learn lessons, and you learn vocabulary at maybe different rates. By actually going out and speaking, this was my way of creating my own materials.

I honestly don’t know why there is such a lack of materials with 320 million people out there. You might expect someone to have thought, “Well hang on. Maybe we should put together some decent materials.” I think if anyone is looking to make their fortune in foreign language materials, then Arabic dialects are certainly something to consider.

It is very difficult for beginners. Textbooks on the whole are very difficult to use. The ones that do exist generally have no English so you can’t even look at them without the help of a teacher.

This is what I did. I kind of went out there. I just started to kind of track people down, find people who were interested and willing to talk to me. There weren’t many of them, but I found some of them. I just started to go out there and have just regular speaking sessions. I tried to organize at least two or up to three or four sessions in a week. I would just sit down and I would just talk.

In the beginning, it’s painful. It’s really, really hard. You don’t understand anything. You know what it’s like. You just push through. I’m speaking as much as possible, and I’m just writing stuff down. You can see here my efforts to try to write stuff down. You can see these weird mixes of Arabic script and mostly Franco-Arabic that I’m using here. [Refers to slide with handwritten page of notes.]

Gradually, by this kind of painful process of having no materials and yet trying to go out there and create my own and speak with people, I am not sure I would recommend this process to anyone else, but it does kind of eventually come together. I always tend to find that after about 6 months of doing something regularly things do tend to kind of take shake. That’s certainly what I found with Arabic as well.

What would be my main advice for how to learn Arabic dialects? I don’t know if you can see this at the back. It’s rather small. I’ll read this out for you.

First of all, I would say that if you have any ambitions of actually wanting to go to the Arab world and speak with people, then I would say you absolutely must learn a dialect. I don’t see it making much sense at all for anybody to learn Modern Standard Arabic unless (a) time is no object, and/or (b) you have a different kind of interest. You are particularly interested in the script or you have academic, cultural interest and you’re studying remotely.

I’d say based on my experience, if I could go back and do it again, I would learn to read and write from the start. It seems obvious with hindsight really, but for some reason I didn’t. I just went at it and used the Franco-Arabic Alphabet.

You can learn to read and write Arabic in a few hours actually. It’s not that hard. You might not learn all the rules but you could certainly learn all the letters and the basic shapes in a matter of hours. Actually, you just got a very good book on how to read and write Arabic that I use myself and it is a really good help so maybe she can tell you about later.

I’d also say that you absolutely must speak from the start, from Day 1 because you will not find the materials out there to help you. A couple of things that helped me in particular, I would say recording people and transcribing it was very, very helpful. It kind of became my materials. I would have my speaking session I would just stick my phone on there and record what was going on. Sometimes I would be taking a taxi home and taxi drivers always just love talking to me whether or not I understand a word they’re saying. I actually decided to get in taxis and press the record button on my phone so that I’ve got some stuff recorded there. I would take it to my tutor, and I would say look can you transcribe this for me.

It’s a great way to actually start to develop your own materials because it’s the real thing. It’s the real language; it’s what people are speaking every day. I also found italki invaluable and without it I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere near as far as I have.

Although I’m actually lucky enough to have quite a few people around me in Cairo who do actually help me and who I can meet regularly, I actually do most of my session iTalki because I can just stay in my pyjamas and I don’t have to leave the house. That has been absolutely fantastic.

I would also say if you’re starting Arabic, get help with your pronunciation right from the start. It’s not easy, especially for native English speakers. You’ve got a lot of difficult sounds to learn to pronounce. It’s by no means impossible, but you do need to make sure right from the start that you get a good handle on especially the kind of guttural sounds you really need to get right.

Lastly, I would say, that despite all my advice of actually speaking as much as possible and using that as your foundation, I think it is a good idea to source a textbook and start to work through. Because the one thing I’ve found now that I’m starting to make progress, is that I’m really kind of lacking that foundation. I would recommend working through a textbook as well. You’re probably going to need a teacher to work through that textbook because of the way the Arabic dialect textbooks tend to be.

So in terms of recommending materials, here they are. I’m going to put them all on a page in my blog so you can track them down if you need to. We’ve got the best textbooks. This comes from a very authoritative source. These are the best textbooks for each of the different dialects:

There’s a new site. This was just launched recently, which is very interesting. I think this is going to make life a lot easier for people learning Arabic dialects. It’s called Talk In Arabic. What they’ve got is content. So they’ve got recorded dialogs and videos and scripts and grammar explanations in all the different dialects. You’ve got Egyptian Arabic. You’ve got Iraqi Arabic and you’ve got Moroccan. You’ve got all this stuff there all done very well, very clean, very easy to access.

I had a word with the creators of this before I came here today, and they’ve actually very kindly offered to give everyone here 6 months free to the service. So if you fancy checking it out, I highly recommend it. Click here to check out the offer and they’re going to give you 6 months free for that. So definitely check that out.

talk in arabic

That’s pretty much what I wanted to cover.

If you would like to check out the slides for any of the resources I mentioned, the tips that I’ve given you and also the attributions to those images that I used, then you can find all the slides here:

Click here to download the slides.

It’s all there.

Before I finish, if you have any kind of questions about how to learn Arabic dialects, or Arabic in general in the future, you would like to ask me anything about Arabic, or anything about languages in general, then I’ve just launched a new podcast, just put I Will Teach You a Language Podcast and you can find that on iTunes. There you can send me any questions you want and I can answer that. If any of you are interested in Arabic that will be a great place to get in touch and to ask your questions.

Thank you very much.

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  • Interesting talk … Indeed ever since I’ve been learning and speaking Arabic I came across the same kind of questions from people who wanted to learn the language. I’ll recommend your video to them …
    But personally none of these ever crossed my mind : learning MSA and a dialect was obvious (preferably a dialect of the country that excites you the most). What is the point of learning one without the other ? It’s two sides of the same coin. Different “registers” (not sure of the word) for different uses : MSA for reading and the “historico-cultural link”, dialect for speaking with people. And contrary to a trendy thinking with some Arabic learners, MSA helped me a lot in learning the dialects I know, and vice versa ! It would be like choosing between academic French I use at university, or the “patois” I speak with my grandmother. Of course I need both if I want to really learn the language, and make the most of all of its aspects.
    But you are right to point out that some learners have different goals : if you only want to read and watch news and historical dramas, then go for MSA and don’t bother with a dialect; if you want only to speak to people, then don’t bother with MSA. But most often life is not that clear-cut, and you realise than you need both …

    • Hi Luisa! I think you’re absolutely right in what you say, and that it all really depends on your goals. The point of learning one without the other, would be if you have very specific communicative needs, and don’t want to spend years learning the “whole” of Arabic. In my case, for example, I was living in Egypt and only interested in daily communication with friends and people I met. Although I certainly would have liked to learn MSA, it was tangential to my main aim of speaking with locals, and certainly not a prerequisite.

      Also, interesting that you’ve found a lot of people who suggest learning only dialect. In my experience researching and trying to understand what Arabic is, the prevailing view (mostly from native Arabic speakers) is that MSA is the only true language, and that a dialect is essentially not worthy of learning, which I have since come to think is rubbish… hence the talk 🙂

  • Kristoffer

    Good talk. There are some good materials though for learning dialects. I
    have really enjoyed Pimsleur’s course in Syrian Arabic (called Eastern
    Arabic), and they also have one for Egyptian Arabic. Best course I’ve
    ever bought (and I don’t receive money from Pimsleur for saying that).

    • Hey Kristoffer. Thanks for the comment. I enjoy Pimsleur too, but the trouble is it doesn’t get you very far. As soon as you want to move beyond the basics, you quickly run out of good material – at least in Egyptian Arabic. (Same problem with Cantonese)

      • Kristoffer

        Pimsleur taught me to use the language very fast and with minimal effort, however, I chose to complement it with other courses which gave me an understanding of the grammar as well as more vocabulary. So I agree with you that I did need more than it alone.

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