Why Learn the Egyptian Arabic Dialect?

Discover Discomfort - Why learn Egyptian Arabic Dialect - Egypt

As part of our quest to learn Arabic in two months, I thought I’d answer a few FAQs about why you should learn Egyptian Arabic over other dialects, and over Modern Standard Arabic.

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
  • Getting directions from randoms
  • Talking to kids

Basically, this is everyday life.

There’s one excellent reason you should speak: 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). (More on what MSA is below). 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.

Is Egyptian Arabic a dialect or a language?

Another way this question is asked: if you speak Egyptian Arabic, can other Arabic speakers understand you? And can you understand other Arabic speakers?

The answer: mostly, yes, Egyptian Arabic (and other Arabic dialects) are mutually intelligible… if you try.

If you take a 10-year old kid off the streets of Cairo and a similar kid from Tunisia, they would be unable to understand complicated sentences. The Cairene kid will be so used to expressing things the local way, and the Tunisian will have a different accent and vocabulary, and randomly throw in French words and phrases. But if they simplify to basics, like “milk? cookie? sweets? toys?” they will figure out that they have something in common.

If you take two educated adults, one from Cairo and one from Tunisia, they will be able to understand each other by making an effort. Before even switching to Modern Standard Arabic (more on this below), the Egyptian will speak slowly and articulate, and the Tunisian will, being familiar with Egyptian dialect from the movies and TV coming out of Egypt constantly, know what’s going on. The Tunisian will then in turn consciously not code-switch to French, use any Egyptian words he can think of and speak slowly and more clearly.

However if you take two adults or children from Cairo and one from Beirut, they’ll be able to understand each other without making many modifications to the way they speak. It’ll be weird pronunciation and vocabulary, but it won’t be totally alien.

To answer the question about whether Egyptian Arabic is a dialect or a language: I’ve often seen written that many Arabic languages exist along a “dialectic continuum”. In other words, it’s a sliding scale. The Arabic local languages are often referred to as dialects of Standard Arabic because they don’t have a commonly used written form.

Does anyone use Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) to communicate?

In other words, is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) useful to learn to communicate? Yes, it’s useful. There are still a few good reasons to learn. Basically, I’d recommend you learn MSA if you plan on spending a career in the Arab world or with the Arabic language, or if you have years to really master the language. For people seeking a quick-and-dirty 80/20 approach, it’s not useful.

Reason one to learn MSA: You’ll be able to understand official announcements. You’ll be able to know what they’re saying in planes (spoiler, it’s “we are soon arriving at xyz airport, please wait until we arrive at the terminal and turn off the fasten seat-belt signs to stand up” — you’re welcome) and airports and understand what’s going on in the news (if you study really hard). For some people, keeping up to date is of utmost importance. If this is you, you’ll find MSA rewarding.

Reason two to learn MSA: You’ll be able to better interact in Arabic in formal settings. If you work as a diplomat or business development person who regularly meets officials and senior government people, speaking MSA will serve you very well. Being polite and formal is never a bad thing.

Reason three to learn MSA: It is the best foundation for branching out into multiple Arabic dialects. You’ll have more cross-dialect fluency. MSA vocabulary overlaps with all dialects. It’s like Latin languages. Most everyday words and expressions look totally different. The way you say “Hey come here and try this food” sounds totally different between Spanish and French. But when you are talking about complicated things like politics, economics, or current events, you’ll find that most of the words are in fact, the same.

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.

Even if you’re learning a dialect — which hardly exists in written form — 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

What other dialects of Arabic are there?

Very loosely, Arabic forms two major groups: Western (Maghrebi) Arabic, and Eastern (Mashriqi) Arabic). Western Arabic is spoken in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Western Sahara.

Western (Maghrebi Arabic) – The language of North Africa

Western Arabic is the group of languages that they speak in North Africa, in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Western Sahara. If you speak Arabic in this language group, you will be able to understand others who are from the same region, more or less (but particularly between two nearby regions). This assumes you also know French (spoken across the region) and can code-switch and mix it up the same way. But even in two adjacent countries, basic everyday phrases can be different. For example, in Moroccan Arabic, to ask “How are you?”, you say “la bass?“, whereas in Tunisia you’d say “shnHawaalik?”.

Locally it’s also known as ad-darija (الدارجة‎), which means “everday/colloquial”. The best resources exist for Moroccan forms of the language, but that’s a good foundation for the rest.

What makes Western Arabic dialects unique is the fact that so much French and Italian is intermingled, through borrowed vocabulary and outright code switching. A lot of French is mixed into the Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian forms, due to their former colonial status, plus the fact that most educated people there still speak fluent French. In Libya and Tunisia, a lot of Italian is mixed in, due to their proximity to Italy. The words are easily absorbed because the spoken language has no standardized written form. The words, once borrowed, are then usually conjugated or used according to local Arabic dialect rules.

Eastern (Mashriqi) Arabic – The language (group) of the Middle East

Eastern Arabic is the group of the Arabic dialects for the rest of the Arab world. It covers all of the Central region (Egypt and Sudan), the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon) and the Gulf area (Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia). Yes, an Iraqi speaker will be able to understand a Lebanese speaker, and it’ll be way closer than a Libyan speaker, but theyr’e still unique dialects because of vocabulary and pronunciation features.

Central Arabic – Egypt and Sudan

Central Arabic is spoken in Egypt and part of Sudan. It’s mostly mutually intelligible with Eastern and Gulf Arabic but some letters are pronounced differently, there are a bunch of local words and everyday expressions, and the accent of course varies quite a lot. In Egypt, to ask “How are you?”, you say “izzayak?

Gulf Arabic – Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar

Gulf Arabic is spoken in Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and in parts of Saudi, Oman and Iraq. Again it’s mostly mutually intelligible with Eastern and Central Arabic, with its own pronunciation and vocabulary distinctions. In Gulf Arabic, to ask “How are you?” you say “schloonik?

Levantine Arabic – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan Israel and Palestine

Levantine Arabic is spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. It’s a small region with a lot of migration, and Arabic is very mutually intelligible between these countries. In Levantine Arabic, to ask “How are you?”, you say “keif Hallak” or just “keifak?

Other Arabic dialects

There are other Arabic dialects that don’t neatly fall into the above groupings. They’re smaller, spoken much more regionally, and less well-documented. A few examples are Hassaniya, spoken by the people across North Africa and a relic of the impact of the Behi Hassan tribes, Iraqi Arabic, which in modern form shares a lot with Levantine Arabic, and Yemeni Arabic, spoken in Yemen and bordering countries. Unless you’re spending a long time in one region or work as an ethnographer or linguist researcher, you might find it more practical to communicate with people speaking these dialects in Modern Standard Arabic. Of course, this advice should only encourage you because how cool would it be to speak the language of the tribes of Beni Hassan, which featured in the film Lawrence of Arabia.

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.

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!

Discover discomfort - Why learn Egyptian Arabic - Sharm el Sheikh
Discover discomfort – Why learn Egyptian Arabic – Sharm el Sheikh

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 Sharm el-Sheikh region. 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.

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