Which Arabic Should You Learn? Unorthodox Advice for a Traveling Linguist


Before coming to Morocco, I make a point of completing the first level of Pimsleur’s Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) course. My thinking is that I want to learn the most “common” language and adjust to the local dialect when I am in the country.  After all, most language schools and online resources advise you do exactly that.  It isn’t until I arrive to Morocco that I realize that the “dialect” is a serious misnomer, and “adjustment” is not an option. There’s a whole new language – not any more similar to MSA than Polish to Czech or Spanish to Italian – that I have to learn!


Part of the Maghrebi group, Moroccan Arabic (or Moroccan Darija, as it’s known here) is heavily influenced by Berber and French. Moroccans have even unofficially added letters to the Arabic script to represent Berber and French sounds that don’t traditionally exist in Arabic.   To an unaccustomed ear, Moroccan has the most unusual consonant clusters and is almost devoid of vowels. To give you an idea, girl is “bnt,” blue – “zrk” and month “shhr.”To many Arab speakers from Egypt or the Gulf, Moroccan sounds simply unintelligible.


Reluctant to let go of my Pimsleur lessons, I decide to learn MSA and the dialect in parallel. Big mistake! I am able to ignore how confused I am only till we get to grammar.  Eight (8) conjugation forms in Darija and thirteen (13!!) in MSA provide  a quick reality check on my progress and state of confusion.  Faced with the dilemma of which language to choose, I come up with a list of Pros and Cons:

Beautiful language with rich vocabulary
Language of poetry and literature
News is broadcast in MSA (One day, I may understand Al Jazeera!)
Most Arab speakers learn MSA in school
Most study resources are for MSA
I can practice every day – towards the end of my stay I’ll have basic communication skills in the dialect
The grammar is easier, which should speed up my progress
It will serve as a base for learning other dialects, just like Spanish with Portuguese or Italian
No one speaks MSA in daily life
Many people do not understand MSA
You can't practice MSA outside your language class
Arab speakers from different regions do not communicate in MSA – they speak each other’s dialects or other languages
Few materials are available in Moroccan Darija
I won’t be understood outside the Maghreb

To me, it is the here and now factor that takes precedence over everything else. I am in Morocco, and learning a language that I may or may not use sometime down the road, while missing out on the opportunity to pick one up now, just seems crazy.


Regardless of where you are headed to in the Arab speaking world, most people do not speak MSA. They use their regional dialects. Moreover, Arab speakers from different regions tend to adjust to each other’s dialects rather than speak MSA. And to greater or lesser extent, they all have vocabularies, grammar, and pronunciation that are different from MSA. So if you are learning Arabic to improve your travel experience, make friends, and get a better feel for the culture, start with the dialect. At the same time learn to read. Practice on storefronts and road signs. Once comfortable with your conversation skills and ready to start following the news, reading literature and conversing with Arabic scholars, move on to MSA. And if you are traveling to another region, learn another dialect!  As with the Roman languages, the next one will only come more natural to you.

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