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The purpose of this document is to inform you in general on the issues of studying the Arabic language in the Arab world. It is presented in two sections both of which are on this page. 

Studying Arabic - FACTS ABOUT ARABIC

Arabic has incredible expressive capabilities and has been of critical importance to many of the events in recent and distant history. If all variants of Arabic are counted together as a single language, it is one of the top 10 languages in numbers of speakers in the world, and its area of geographic coverage is very large covering large areas of Africa, Asia and of course the Middle East.

The most important thing to understand about Arabic is that it is not one language, but several. These include Classical Arabic, a modern derivative of it called Modern Standard Arabic, and the many colloquial languages spoken in the different Arabic countries.

The first decision you must make when you decide to study Arabic is which Arabic to study. Most Universities focus their studies on Modern Standard Arabic. Students interested in religion or history might be interested in Classical Arabic. People who want to live in the Arabic World would be interested in studying the colloquial language of the area they will live in and might also study Modern Standard Arabic to be able to read and understand television, cinema and news broadcasts.

It is important to understand the differences between these three categories of Arabic.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is called "Fusha" in Arabic. It is used in literature, the media, and educational institutions. You will need to read Fusha in order to read a newspaper or a novel. You will need to understand Fusha in order to understand news broadcasts, and most (but not all) cinema and television entertainment. An Arab who finished high school should theoretically understand spoken Fusha, but in practice this is often not the case, and when it comes to conversing in Fusha many Arabs even at the University level have difficulties holding a conversation in Fusha for more than a few minutes. However, educated Arabs would certainly write a personal letter in a very grammatically correct Fusha.

Classical Arabic is also sometimes referred to as "Fusha" in Arabic. It is the language of the Qu'ran first and foremost, and would be of importance to students of religion. It would also be important for historians expecting to read manuscripts prior to this century. While being able to read Classical Arabic would be useful to any Arabic student, speaking it would be relatively useless, though certainly most Arabs would find this quite humourous in a restaurant or cafe.

Colloquial Arabic, sometimes referred to in Arabic as the "lahja", or "`amiya" is a collection of languages all of which share some of their features with Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. These are sometimes referred to as dialects, but under some analyses are considered languages in and of themselves. They have different grammatical rules, vocabulary, and pronunciations from one another and MSA. There are two major categories of colloquial languages. These are sometimes referred to as "Western Colloquial Arabic" and "Eastern Colloquial Arabic" in University programs. The first category corresponds loosely to the Arabic countries to the West of Egypt and the second category includes Egypt and the Arabic countries to the East of Egypt.

Eastern Colloquial Arabic could be further broken down in many ways. Two of the more important sub-categories of Eastern Colloquial Arabic include Egyptian and Levantine. Levantine Colloquial Arabic is spoken in various versions in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Egyptian is of particular interest as much of the cinema and television that is not in MSA is in this language, and it is widely understood for this reason. The natives of every country in the Eastern region claim that their colloquial language is closest to MSA. While it is difficult to determine which Eastern variant is closest to MSA, it is the author's experience that foreign students trained in MSA understand the Eastern Colloquial Arabic variants more easily than any of the Western Colloquial Arabic variants.

Western Colloquial Arabic has many influences from the local languages in North Africa and French. Apparently the variants differ more widely from language to language than the Eastern variants. Western Colloquial Arabic variants appear to be fairly far removed from Eastern Colloquial Arabic, see below.

Studying Arabic - THE AUTHOR'S OPINION

Most students will wish to acquire a decent base of MSA and also to be able to communicate in at least one dialect. This is difficult, and resembles in some ways the problem of learning two closely related languages like Spanish and Portuguese at the same time. The author recommends study in an Eastern region in this case.

If the student is only interested in communicating with the natives of a country in the region orally, clearly he/she should go to that country and study the colloquial language. This will not be a difficult task in comparison with learning MSA.

If the student only wishes to acquire a reasonable knowledge of MSA it will still be a difficult task, but easier than studying colloquial and MSA at once. However it will be frustrating in many ways because of the inability to communicate in the actual spoken language of the country. The same applies for Classical Arabic.

It is also important to note that, contrary to a widely held myth, Arabs do not speak MSA with one another when they travel to other Arabic countries; they generally tend to try to learn the local colloquial language which they pick up with little difficulty. One exception to this is when Arabs from the Western region travel for a brief time to the Eastern region or vice versa. The author has seen people in this situation speak MSA, Egyptian Colloquial, their own colloquial languages, and even in English and French to communicate.

The author recommends Syria and Yemen to students interested in studying Arabic. The reasons are that they are inexpensive, English and other foreign languages are not widely spoken, and there is not a large presence of foreigners. See the Syria and Yemen pages for details on programs in these countries. There is an additional page listing a few programs which were recommended to the author located in other countries, but it is strongly recommended that you study in Syria or Yemen. In particular, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon have large numbers of foreigners and a higher number of locals who speak English and/or French.

See Syria, Yemen, Other, or go to the main Arabic page.

Comments or additions? Please email arabic@xand.net.