As part of our goal to learn Arabic in two months, I thought I’d answer a few questions about why you should learn Egyptian Arabic over other dialects, like Levantine, Gulf, and Maghrebi Arabic, and over Modern Standard Arabic. It’s a question we put a lot of research into.
In this guide…
- Why learn an Arabic Dialect
- What Egyptian Arabic is, and how it’s different to the other dialects
- How Egyptian Arabic is different to Modern Standard Arabic
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Why learn an Arabic dialect like Egyptian Arabic?
Why are you learning a language? Everyone has different reasons, and your reasons will tell you what you need to learn.
If you like to feel like a local, speak to everyday people and generally feel at one with an Arabic-speaking country, you need to learn a dialect like Egyptian Arabic. Arabic dialects are used in situations like
- Banter with your taxi or Uber driver
- Telling your AirBnB host that the air conditioning is broken
- Asking what is good to eat at the local kebab shop or even deciphering a menu (often in local language)
- Getting your hair cut (surprisingly difficult in Egypt, it turned out)
Basically, this is everyday life.
There’s one excellent reason you should speak a dialect: it’s basically the only way to prove you know a language. Anyone can read and write with enough time. A casual observer can’t tell the difference between a wonderfully constructed paragraph, a Google Translation and even random gibberish. Speaking is the ultimate proof.
There’s an acid test people give you when they realize you speak a language. They’ll say “hello” or “how are you”. You respond. You’re off to a great start. Then they ask you “Where did you learn this language?” and you give them a little story. It doesn’t have to be complicated — just “Oh, I spent a few months in some city in a little apartment and I studied really hard. I had a great teacher. Where are you from?”. Say this fluently and you’ll get a surprised laugh and praise from the person you’re speaking to. You’re home and have shown you know the language! If you can’t say a sentence like this, in most people’s eyes, you don’t know the language.
If you’re a quiet person who prefers to read and have academic conversations about deep topics, and perhaps never intend to live in an Arabic-speaking country but instead analyse the literature from far away, then you’ll really benefit from not learning a dialect, and learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Newspapers, books, journals and the media are all in MSA, not in dialect form. You can have a deep conversation in a dialect, but at the high-end academic level, like presentations, knowing Standard Arabic will let you understand and discuss later.
What’s “Egyptian Arabic”? How is it different to “Modern Standard Arabic”?
Unfortunately learning Arabic isn’t as simple as learning one language. Oh, you thought that by learning “Arabic” we’d be able to speak to anyone in the Arab world? Not quite.
There does exist a kind of standard Arabic, known as “Modern Standard Arabic” or MSA in English. Its technical name in Arabic is الفصحى, or al-fusHa. MSA is the standardised, universal and technically correct form of Arabic derived from classical Arabic (used in the Qur’an). MSA is used in newscasts, international politics and formal presentations, and is absolutely never used colloquially.
In other words if you ever switch on Al Jazeera and see them speaking in Arabic, chances are it’s Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). If you ever see a foreign leader presenting at the UN, it’s likely MSA. Printed newspapers are written in MSA, though local magazines may be written in a more dialectic form.
Some scholars say we should learn standard Arabic first as a foundation, but just as many others say you don’t have to. It depends on your goals. Roughly speaking, you should learn MSA if your goals are long-term and focused on mastering Arabic. If your goals are short-term, you can start with a dialect.
Studying spoken Arabic instead of standard Arabic has multiple advantages. It’s way easier structurally, more natural to use in everyday situations and doesn’t oblige you to learn a whole bunch of difficult technical rules.
Why learn Egyptian Arabic and not one of the other dialects?
To round this out: why learn to speak Egyptian Arabic? Seems there’s a lot of choice out there.
There’s no “prestigious” dialect (like an equivalent of English Received Pronunciation) other than Modern Standard Arabic. Sometimes, speakers will code-switch to MSA just to show off. So a decision isn’t simple.
If you want to learn Arabic and don’t care what dialect you’re going to learn, like if you have the option of choosing where to go, we definitely suggest learning Egyptian Arabic.
But if you’re already somewhere else (like, you’re in Iraq), then learn what’s around you.
Reason 1 to learn Egyptian Arabic: Egyptian popular media.
See, Egypt has been the biggest TV and film-producing powerhouse of the middle east for decades. Even though the so-called “golden age” of Egyptian media is over, they still churn out dramas and comedies in film and TV form, and are one of the biggest producers of Arab music. Egypt plays a similar role to Korea in Asia, with their hugely influential Korean drama and K-pop, or Argentina and Mexico in Latin America, with their widely recognized telenovelas. The impact of Egyptian media is that everyone in the Middle East can understand Egyptian Arabic, and maybe even imitate it back.
Reason 2 to learn Egyptian Arabic: Egypt is cheap to live in.
The Egyptian Pound has plummeted since 2011, and it means that getting an hostel room or AirBnB in the middle of Cairo will only cost you $10-20 a night. That’s almost unbeatable in most of the Arab world. Your average meal will cost you US$2-3. Basically, without even trying, you can keep total living expenses to well under US$1,000 a month.
Reason 3 to learn Egyptian Arabic: Mutual intelligibility with a cool part of the world.
Egypt has enough mutual intelligibility to cover most of the Eastern region, including Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. If you speak Egyptian Arabic and travel to those countries, you’ll be understood without having to modify too much. You’ll be able to travel to a part of the world with very rich culture and an ancient history, spanning multiple civilizations, major religions and many, many wars (some, unfortunately, still ongoing).
If you learned Egyptian Arabic you might struggle a little to understand and be understood in North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), but you’ll have a good foundation.
Reason 4 to learn Egyptian Arabic: Egypt is awesome!
In case you’ve forgotten, Egypt is awesome by itself, and offers a little of so many things. There are the Pyramids of Giza, for starters. The beauty of the Sinai Peninsula, where we ended up for a few weeks hanging out with Bedouin. The chaos of the big city, something everyone should experience just to understand more of the world. And knowing Egyptian Arabic gives you instant access to 50 million+ speakers all over the country. Even before you add in the 300 million+ other Arabic speakers, this is a decent number of people.
Do you need to learn to read and write Arabic, if you’re learning a dialect like Egyptian?
Definitely learn to read and write Arabic even if you only are learning a dialect. I mean, at least learn to read Arabic, and then be able to figure out if your Google Translate is correct.
For the casual traveller, you occasionally might have to write if you have to send a message to your landlord (because surprise, your actual contact person is the cousin of the person who owns the property). In cases like this, you are fine to translate online, but then you just want to make sure the translation makes sense.
A common misconception is that dialects don’t exist in written form. This is definitely untrue for Egyptian Arabic. It’s seen in menus, in emails and texts, on social media and in more places. You can find written Egyptian Arabic everywhere. It’s just not standardised like MSA is.
Even if you’re learning the Egyptian dialect, you need to learn to read for a whole bunch of reasons:
- Most local shops only have shop names in Arabic, and only have menus in Arabic.
- Prices for goods in markets and supermarkets are usually only in Arabic numbers. (Yay, only ten Arabic letters! But there are only 28 Arabic letters so it’s not a whole bunch more)
- Most minor street signs are only in Arabic
- You want to comment on your friends Facebook posts
What other dialects of Arabic are there?
There’s lots of ways of slicing it up. This is just an overview – we’ve put together a whole other guide to the dialects of Arabic here.
The groups that I think make most sense (and which are commonly used) are:
- Egyptian Arabic: Spoken in Egypt, and parts of Sudan, by about 100M speakers natively. Because of music and television, most people in the Arab world understand Egyptian Arabic too.
- Levantine Arabic: Spoken in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Mostly mutually intelligible with Egyptian Arabic. Also widely understood because a lot of music comes out of this region (particularly Beirut).
- Peninsular Gulf Arabic: Spoken in Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and eastern Saudi Arabia (i.e. the parts far from Mecca).
- Peninsular Arabic apart from Gulf: Spoken in most of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman.
- Maghrebi Arabic: Spoken in North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania and Yemen. Depending on the country, they receive a lot of influence from different European languages (e.g. Morocco got a lot from Spainsh, and Algeria a lot from French). I
Check out our guide on the dialects of Arabic.