Flashback to 2011. I am seventeen and I have just decided to study Arabic at University. I didn’t really know much about the Arabic language apart from that it had a beautiful script and I thought it would be useful as well as a challenge to learn. I certainly didn’t know that, within the Arab World, there are different dialects of Arabic that can sometimes seem like altogether different languages! If I had, would I have chosen differently? Here are my five reasons why you should learn MSA.

MSA is the linguistic thread that connects the Arab World.

Although it can sound overly formal and can differ substantially from spoken dialects, native-speakers of Arabic can make themselves understood through the common features of MSA and their dialects. Likewise, with a little good humour, you can make yourself understood. It helps that most people would regularly hear MSA on the TV, at school or work and in newspapers.

It is relatively easy to find language learning materials for Arabic in MSA.

As the name would suggest, MSA is a standardised version of the language. There are many resources available to practise your Arabic, and you can be confident that what you learn will be transferable. If you are learning Arabic for a career in business, diplomacy or as an interpreter, you can guarantee that the spoken language in these formal contexts will be MSA.

Arabic dialects are the same language as MSA.

Although day-to-day words and accents will differ across regions, at their core, Arabic dialects are the same language as Modern Standard Arabic. For example, dialects differ greatly in day-to-day language (food items, greetings, etc.), but core grammar and vocabulary remain constant. This is because, after all, the root-and-pattern system lies at the heart of all Arabic words. It’s also good to remember that Arabic is not the only language with different dialects, as any learner of Italian would have you know. In our vast globe, pockets of languages insist on evolving in varying linguistic conditions and this creates a fascinating diversity of dialects. Not so good though for the hardworking beginner to discover that not everyone speaks the precise language you are learning! I like to consider it as similar to the difficulty an Australian might have when first meeting a Scot. I once heard someone explain it this way: Imagine you meet a traveller who speaks to you in Shakespearian English, you would likely understand the meaning but you may struggle to respond.

MSA is the gateway to dialects.

With MSA you learn a language that can open you up to all dialects of Arabic rather than specialising in one. This means you can make yourself understood in your travels from Morocco to Egypt, Jordan to Palestine to Oman. Or, as I am always pleased to encounter, MSA improves your ability to communicate with Arabs living abroad.

Modern Standard Arabic – A fascinating language

MSA is the single most fascinating language I have come across (and I have come across many!). You continue to uncover intricacies as you delve deeper into its mathematical grammar and the more Arabic you learn, the more the language offers.

Why then might someone choose to learn a dialect from the outset? I learnt Moroccan darija whilst living with my host family and it was a very worthwhile project.

Wide horizons or country-specific experiences?

If your goal of learning Arabic is to communicate with people in a specific part of a specific country in the Arab World, particularly in rural areas, you should definitely opt for a dialect. However, you should be aware that Arabic dialects differ, even from city to city, so a course in Tunisian Arabic may not be that helpful if you plan to travel across the country. Nevertheless, whether you begin with MSA or a dialect, this knowledge will help enormously if you decide to study the other.

So why choose MSA? Well, it’s no contest really!

By Stephanie Sutherland


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