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Learning literary or dialectal Arabic: making the right choice for the right start

There are an estimated 375 million native Arabic speakers in the world, according to an article by the University of Birmingham (1). But did you know that there isn’t only one Arabic language? It is important to distinguish between literary Arabic and Arabic dialects. While literary Arabic is the official language of around twenty countries, the others are variations of literary Arabic, spoken in their own geographical areas. If you have chosen to learn Arabic, you may be wondering which variant to start with. We study the possibilities in this article.

 What is dialectal Arabic?

Originally from the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabic language has spread geographically. It now extends from the Middle East to North Africa, including countries in the Horn of Africa, such as Somalia.

However, the Arabic spoken in each of these countries differs. Each has its own specificities, vocabulary, intonations, etc. Specialists have noted that Arabic dialects are becoming increasingly distinct, although one cannot consider them as different languages yet.

The University of Laval website lists 19 different dialects, which can be divided into two main groups:

  • Western Arabic, the dialects of which are spoken mainly in the Maghreb, Spain and Malta
  • Eastern Arabic, which consists of dialects from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Chad, etc.

The most widely spoken dialect is Egyptian Arabic (64.5 million speakers), followed by Algerian (29.3 million) and Sudanese (28.9 million).

Note that dialectal Arabic is essentially a spoken language and it is difficult for speakers of two distant dialects to understand each other.

👉 Going further: learn Arabic the easy way with these 7 tips.

What is Liberary Arabic ?

Unlike dialectal Arabic, which is a vernacular language (for communication within a single group), literary Arabic is considered to be a lingua franca. This means that it is the version of Arabic used to communicate between speakers of different groups.

Literary Arabic includes Classical and Modern Arabic. Classical Arabic is the version found in literary works. The second is a so-called standardised version. This is the one used in the media, in administration… And it is also the one that is generally taught to people who want to learn Arabic.

According to the website Ethnologue, which specialises in language analysis, 274 million people speak Modern Standard Arabic. This makes it the 6th most spoken language in the world. It is, among other things, the official language of the countries of the Arab League (22 countries) and one of the official languages of the UN. It is therefore a particularly important language in economic and diplomatic terms.

💡 You may also be interested in this article: How many languages are there in the world?

Literary or dialectal Arabic: which one should you choose?

Career, travel, the need to reconnect with your roots, a fascination for the Arab world… There are many reasons to learn Arabic. But which version of the language should you choose when you start?

🔎 Read also: Which languages were most popular with learners in 2021?

In most cases, it is advisable to start by learning literary Arabic, and more specifically Modern Standard Arabic. This is the version of the language that will be most useful:

  • in your job, especially for written communication;
  • – for administrative purposes;
  • for travel, regardless of which Arabic-speaking country you are visiting.

It is also the preferred language variant for media and educational purposes. It is therefore easier to find teaching resources adapted to your needs, and qualified trainers. You will also have access to a wider range of newspapers, TV and radio programmes, documentation, etc.

With 1to1PROGRESS, you can learn Arabic through video or telephone courses with native speakers. You can learn all the subtleties of Modern Arabic in order to become independent quickly, both in writing and speaking.

Once you have mastered the basics of literary Arabic, there is nothing stopping you from specialising in the dialect that appeals to you the most!

(1) Source : University of Birmingham