There are different types of Arabic?

Updated: Aug 23, 2021


There is the Modern Standard Arabic MSA and the spoken, dialectal Arabic- specifically Levantine/Palestinian which is taught at Hona AlQuds

This article will tell what the differences are and the debates surrounding them

Levantine Arabic refers to the Arabic dialect (3miya) spoken in Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. It is also sometimes referred to as Shami or Eastern Arabic.

A Levantine Arabic learner will not only find the dialect useful to converse with the locals when travelling within the Levant, but also to connect with the Levantine-speaking diaspora communities abroad.

Levantine Arabic vs. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)

Modern Standard Arabic is the standardised Arabic used in formal writing and speech across the Arab world.

It is typically referred to as MSA, Fusha and in some instances, Classical Arabic.

Here are where you’ll find MSA written and spoken:

  • Newspapers

  • Academic journals

  • Official documents

  • News channels

Arabs are taught MSA in classrooms, they do not speak it on a daily basis. This is due to the high formal register associated with the language.

Some may even go as far as likening MSA to “Shakespearean English” to explain the disparity between MSA and spoken dialects. Levantine Arabic is the colloquial language spoken in everyday life. It is not recorded in any formal register and is only passed orally. So for many, they learned their dialect from those around them. In the texting and social media age Levantine has found its way to a Latinized form of texting and using Arabic script. It was unheard of before texting to use Arabic script to communicate by script

Differences in term of pronunciation, inflection and vocabulary are regarded as minimal because native speakers from the Levant are able to understand each other with ease regardless of where they are from.

Palestinians living in the villages outside of urban cities tend to pronounce the letter qaf (ق) as a kaf (ك) which is different from the typical feature of Levantine Arabic where the qaf (ق) is pronounced as a hamzah (ء).

Meanwhile from the close-out perspective (looking at the Levant as a whole), such differences tend to be smaller along the north vs. south divide.

After all, Levantine Arabic is divided into two categories:

  • North Levantine (Lebanon & Syria)

  • South Levantine (Jordan & Palestine)

That means that Jordanian and Palestinian Arabic are much more similar to each other than Syrian and Lebanese Arabic, and vice versa.

However, it is safe to say that unless you’re travelling to a remote tiny village, chances are you will be able to converse and be understood across the Levant even if you are only exposed to one of the four sub-dialects of Levantine Arabic.

Pros and Cons?

The pros and cons of learning either MSA or Levantine Arabic relies on knowing your language goals right from the beginning is crucial.

Learning MSA will enable you to write a business email, to read literary novels as well as to watch and understand the news.

We would like to highlight a major concern with using MSA as a conversational language.

The downside to speaking in MSA is that while you can certainly be understood, not everyone will be able to reply instantly in such a formal register.

The ability to do so is dependent on various factors such as education level or the level of exposure of MSA in one’s daily life.

For example, students will find more success conversing in MSA with university professors or those who work in the formal media industry, just to name a few.

Likewise, just because you can converse with your Arabic teachers in MSA, that does not mean that you will be able to evoke the same response with other native speakers in the streets

And this is why most students feel frustrated when they travel to the Middle East for the first time after spending years of studying MSA in their home universities.

They soon realise that while they can get by in an Arabic speaking country with MSA, they won’t be able to comprehend conversations amongst natives nor truly be able to engage with them on a deeper level.

MSA as most Arabs would consider it to be the purest version of the Arabic language, hence a superior language than spoken dialects.

Should you learn MSA before Levantine Arabic?

To study MSA from the beginning allows for a solid foundation and better understanding of Arabic language before one delves into learning a dialect.

The argument is that students may feel confused and lost as to the lack of proper structure in any Arabic dialects. As a result, it is possible for students to lose motivation to pursue their endeavour to learn a dialect any further.

In fact, there are many students who have chosen to learn MSA before tackling an Arabic dialect.

MSA & Levantine Arabic at the same time?

Meanwhile, if you’re thinking of learning both MSA and Levantine Arabic at the same time….just don’t.

Such an approach is not recommended for beginners and you’re just setting yourself up for unnecessary stress and frustration. Besides, you’ll get better results and feel more accomplished by focusing on either one of them.

Basic Strategy

Start with some basic MSA as a foundation.

Reason No#1:

  • Hona AlQuds is developing one of the first systems to teach dialectal Arabic due to that there is yet for adequate comprehensive textbooks or guidebooks that explain the workings of Levantine Arabic systematically the way MSA textbooks do.

Levantine Arabic learners deserve the same type of comprehensive materials that are available in MSA to choose from instead of stringing bits and pieces of information from various sources on their own.

Levantine Arabic as a simplified version of MSA. Ditch some features of MSA and make some tweaks such as replacing MSA words with their spoken counterparts and you’ll get Levantine Arabic.

It is possible to reach an intermediate level in Levantine Arabic and beyond without any formal background in MSA but only with comprehensive dedicated resources as well as proper learning techniques.

Reason No #2:

  • As you advance into the intermediate level and are exposed to higher level materials (think talk shows, interviews etc.), you’ll find that Levantine Arabic (or any dialects) and MSA tend to overlap each other to form a type of Arabic called “Spoken Educated Arabic”.

Spoken Educated Arabic is a type of Arabic spoken most commonly amongst the educated whereas the Amiyya speech structure is retained but where some features of MSA are incorporated.

This type of Arabic which is a mix of both literary and colloquial Arabic is typically used to discuss politics or other topics commonly found in the media but in a less formal register.

Such topics may NOT be of interest to a learner at a beginner level but Spoken Educated Arabic can be useful as one seeks to increase his or her proficiency by tackling more complicated topics such as politics and the likes.

Reason No #3:

  • If a Levantine Arabic learner wishes to start learning MSA at a later stage,there are some considerations.The grammatical rules and rigid structure of MSA may be hard to comprehend after one is used to the flexible and simplistic structure of Levantine Arabic.

It is much easier to resume MSA studies if a learner has a foundation to fall back upon.

It is only in hindsight that an experienced Levantine Arabic learner might regret not having a foundation in MSA should they wish to take proficiency to the next level.

Basic MSA tis recommended o all future Levantine Arabic learners if they are confident about their commitment level to learn the language due to the reasons

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