How useful is MSA?

I’ve been studying Arabic for about 8 months now and ever since I started I have heard many different opinions about how useful or even “reasonable” it would be to study MSA instead of any given dialect.

There are many people out there who keep describing MSA as something similar to “Shakespearean English”. I find that comparison strange (and also completely unfounded) for many reasons. First of all, I’ve never heard any anchorperson speak in Shakespearean English, nor have I read any newspapers in a language that would remind me of the way Shakespeare might have spoken. The same is true of documentaries on TV etc.

I also commonly use MSA when talking to my language partners on skype.

It is quite obvious that people prefer speaking in their local dialects when they are dealing with family members, friends etc. This does not strike me as unusual at all, after all I speak in my dialect as well when I speak to friends, family members, at the local grocery store, with the bus driver etc.

When I’m at work, however, I use standard German.

I’ve decided to study MSA first and then go on and study a couple of dialects (most likely Levantine and Egyptian Arabic).

A couple of months ago I started teaching German to refugees in my hometown. The government offers German courses for refugees, but these courses are either taught in English and/or German. Most of the refugees I work with, however, don’t speak any or only very little German and/or English.

So, I decided to use my still rather limited MSA and I have to say that this works just great. I’ve “students” from Iraq, the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They ALL understand and SPEAK MSA. Of course, they use a mixture of MSA and their own dialects when they talk to each other but with me they all communicate in MSA and this has never been a problem.

I’ve managed to learn a few words and expressions in various dialects already, because you pick up these things when you keep listening to people.

However, I’m really glad I decided to study MSA first because otherwise I would have never been able to talk to all these people from so many different countries where Arabic is spoken.

It is simply NOT TRUE that MSA is a “dead language” as some people suggest. There are obviously cases where it will be much more beneficial than knowing “just one” specific dialect.

I believe that studying MSA and learning one or a couple of dialects will be very beneficial to anyone interested in the Arabic speaking world.

I’ve made some wonderful friends amongst the refugees I work with. Btw, they all know I don’t believe in God and this has never been a problem. They also understand that my view on life is different from theirs in many ways, but what we all have in common is mutual respect.

Apart from that, I have noticed that my Arabic has also tremendously benefited from the German lessons I give. This is a real win-win-situation for everybody involved. And again, I love the fact that studying MSA allows me to talk to so many native speakers of Arabic and I’ve never had the feeling that they feel awkward or uncomfortable when talking to me in MSA.


Robert, it’s nice to hear your voice again. I often wondered how different these dialects are. In comparison to the romance languages, how different are the different Arabic dialects in your opinion?

“I’ve never heard any anchorperson speak in Shakespearean English”

Me neither, and it truly is a shame. I have also never met a non-native speaker of English who has learned the language simply by reading and listening to Shakespeare. I wonder if such legends exist.

Bei dem Weg, ich bin in letzter Zeit oft in Graz gewesen und werde in der Zukunft ofter da sein. Ich besuche die Stadt aus beruflichen Gründen. Und mit “aus beruflichen Gründen” meine ich, dass ich romantische Wochenende mit einer hübschen rüssischen Kollegin verbringe! Wir konnen uns irgendwann treffen, wenn du Lust hast.

People will tell you different things about how much those dialects differ. But generally speaking the biggest differences are between the Maghrebian dialects (Tunisian, Algerian and Morrocan) and the other dialects. Egyptian and the Levantine dialect (spoken in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, although each of these countries have their own pecularities as well) don’t strike me as that different from each other. I’d say probably like the difference between Portuguese and French.

The dialects on the Arab peninsula, however, seem to differ quite a big again. I’ll be going to Oman in November for a month and my Lebanese friends told me that they only understand about 30 % of what Omanis say.

However, the basic structure always seems to be the same. So far, I’ve only dealt with the Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese dialect. Yes, there are differences but they seem to be mostly in the area of pronunciation and with regard to the more basic vocabulary (expressions you’d use in daily life, names for vegetables, fruits, basic verbs like “to go etc.”).

Grammatically speaking I think there are more differences between MSA and any given dialect than between the dialects themselves.

Just to give you an example:
What is your name?
MSA = Ma ismuka (male person) or Ma ismak?
Egpytian = ismak eh?
Syrian = šū ismak?

You see that the “ismak” structure is the same in all three variants, the “ak” indicating the second person singular in the male form. The only difference is the word for “what”, which in MSA is “ma” (before nouns; “madha” before verbs) and “eh” in Egyptian (plus the fact that you put the “eh” at the end of the sentence and not at the beginning) and " šū" in Syrian.

“kayfa” = how? (MSA), “kiif” in Syrian. How are you? = kayfa haluka? (MSA), kiifak = Syrian, ezzayyak = Egyptian. Again, the major grammatical structur is the same. The ending indicating the second person in the male singular form always is “ak”.

min ween intuu? (Syrian) = where are you from?
min aina anta? (MSA)
intuu min feen (Egyptian)

I hope you get the idea. I don’t think it is like studying a couple of completely different languages as I have heard some people suggest. Of course, you’ll find it difficult to understand people if you only studied MSA and never even tried to listen to any dialect before. I try to concentrate on MSA for the time being, but I also read texts in dialect and watch movies etc. I’m currently not actively studying any dialect but the little exposure I have to them already gives me a bit of a head start and makes it easier for me to understand people who mix MSA with their own dialect.

If you want to choose one dialect only, I’d say Egyptian or the Levantine dialect would be your best choice (unless you have a good reason to study any other dialect) because they seem to be the two most widely understood dialects.

If you are in Graz again, give me a call (or even better, a few days before you get there). Do you still have my mobile phone number? It is the one ending in 85 (I used to have a different one). My friend and I would love to meet you guys and, of course, you’d be more than welcome to visit us in Leibnitz, too.