All prospective students should be aware that Arabic is characterized by a linguistic phenomenon known as diglossia. This is the existence of two varieties or registers of the same language, one that is used in writing and in formal situations (media broadcasts, public speaking, etc.) and another in informal, everyday situations. In the case of Arabic, the formal language is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is more or less the same across the Arab world, while the informal language consists of various regional colloquials or dialects – none of which can be demarcated precisely, since none have official status. However, they may be divided into six main groups:
- Arabian Peninsula Arabic (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen)
- Iraqi Arabic
- Levantine Arabic (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria)
- Egyptian Arabic
- Sudanese Arabic
- North African Arabic (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia)
There can be considerable differences between one dialect group and another, as well as between any given dialect and MSA, with respect to vocabulary as well as grammar. It has been suggested that the relationship between MSA and the dialects is analogous to that between Latin and the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). While not entirely accurate, the analogy does hold in two key respects. First, as with the Romance languages, the Arabic dialects tend toward mutual intelligibility as geographical distance decreases. Secondly, as with Latin, MSA is no one’s mother tongue, but must be learned at school (if it is learned at all) as a second language.
Arabs generally hold MSA in high esteem. And yet, while most have a passive understanding of MSA, relatively few have an excellent active command of the language, especially in countries or areas with higher rates of illiteracy. Many are uncomfortable trying to speak it extemporaneously, and may even revert to the dialect in whole or in part when trying to do so. In an analogous way, most native English speakers have relatively little difficulty understanding the King James Bible, but would struggle to use its archaic language in their own speech.
All students of Arabic are encouraged to learn MSA as well as a dialect. However, it is often not possible (or even advisable) for the novice student of Arabic to pursue a systematic study of both at the same time. This means that a choice may have to be made between the two, especially in the early stages of language study. This choice should be made by each student according to his/her particular needs and interests. For example, those who are spending time in an Arab country may choose to study the dialect of that country. Those with academic or reading interests in Arabic, or with interests that are not limited to one specific country, may choose to study MSA. As students advance in their knowledge of one of the two (whether MSA or a dialect), the transition to the other becomes easier.
Unfortunately, while there are a number of good resources for learning MSA, the dialects tend to be treated superficially or even neglected altogether. This is undoubtedly a product of the deeply-rooted view of the dialects as corrupted, ungrammatical versions of “real” Arabic, i.e. MSA (or Classical Arabic, from which MSA derives). Many educators insist that students concentrate on acquiring a good command of MSA, on the assumption that they can pick up a dialect later on simply by talking to Arabs on the street.
In our view, however, this one-size-fits-all approach does a great disservice to many students. There is no good reason why students cannot begin with a dialect and then move on (if they wish) to MSA. Indeed, this more closely mirrors the process of language acquisition with Arabs themselves, who speak their dialect as a mother tongue and only later (if at all) learn MSA. Moreover, the gap between MSA and the dialects can be considerable, and is all too often underestimated by those who speak a dialect as a mother tongue. It is not uncommon even for advanced students of MSA to find that they are unable to understand much of what is said around them in an Arab country. This situation can be especially frustrating for students who feel that they have been left to their own devices when it comes to learning the dialect.
At the Lebanese Arabic Institute, we treat the Arabic dialect spoken in Lebanon as a language independent of MSA, having its own grammar and structure, and worthy of serious study in its own right. Our program is rooted in a rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the Arabic which is actually spoken on the street in Lebanon, without prejudice from the rules of MSA. At the same time, we aim as much as possible to preserve the orthographical and grammatical conventions of MSA in our presentation of colloquial Lebanese Arabic; this is intended to facilitate the transition to or from MSA.
The above has been adapted from the introduction to our Lebanese Arabic From Scratch: A Course for Non-Native Speakers.