Arabic Language FAQ

Here are some questions I keep seeing crop up in Arabic language forums. Click on a question to view the answer, then click on the question again to collapse the answer. Please do not copy-paste anything here on your own website. Just link back here!

Learning Arabic
How hard is Arabic?

That depends on a lot of things, like what your native language is; for example, if you're a Hebrew speaker, Arabic will be easier for you than it would be if you were a native speaker of Spanish. But for native English speakers, Arabic is objectively a difficult langauge, largely because it's just so different from English. This page sums up the difficulties of learning Arabic for native English speakers pretty well. The State Department's Foreign Service Insitute ranks Arabic as a "category 3" language ("exceptionally difficult for native English speakers"), along with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. So, depending on your native language, how much experience you have with learning languages, and so forth, Arabic can definitely be a difficult language. But the important thing is motivation — if you really want to learn it and are willing to work at it, you can do it. You have to invest a lot more time and effort into learning Arabic than you would with Indo-European languages, so many people give up early. But like I said, if you have the desire to learn, that'll make everything else easier.

The Arabic alphabet does seem intimidating at first — all those squiggles, and it goes from right to left! And then there are all those letters like ح ,ج, and خ that are the same except for the dots. But if you just sit down, focus, and go through it systematically, it's easy to learn in just a few days. (And you can comfort yourself with the fact that at least Arabic does have an alphabet, unlike, say, Chinese!) Pronunciation can be difficult for a native English speaker — letters like ع ,ح, and غ may be hard to produce at first. But that sort of stuff will get easier with practice.

What complicates things a bit is the fact that short vowels are usually not indicated in writing outside of the Qur'an and children's books. This makes things pretty difficult when you're just starting out and have no way of knowing, just from unvoweled text, the correct pronunciation for words you're unfamiliar with. For example, looking at the word فلفل, you would see "f-l-f-l" and not know what vowels come in between those letters. The good news is, this gets easier with time and practice. And if you memorize the verb forms (more on them below), that really helps in figuring out the correct pronunciations for lots of words.

A lot of people have trouble with Arabic grammar, especially at the beginning of their studies — it's systematic but complex, and the case endings can be difficult to handle, particularly if you're not already used to a language like Russian or Latin. Also, one irritating thing is the broken plurals; while some nouns take regular plurals, many have completely irregular plurals. However, there are patterns of broken plurals, and if you memorize enough words with their plurals, you can eventually internalize the patterns just through the practice, and be able to guess plurals intuitively.

As far as vocabulary goes, there are only a tiny number of cognates, which does make it harder to pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize words (as you could with, say, French). Also, the vocabulary is very rich; there are many synonyms and words with similar general meanings but different usages/connotations. As I've gotten further on in my Arabic studies, I've found that after you develop a good base of grammar knowledge, it's the endless vocabulary that continues to pose a challenge.

Stylistically Arabic is also complicated; it's quite common for sentences to go on for a paragraph, so that by the time you reach the end you have to remind yourself what the original subject of the sentence was! The Arabic writing style is also a lot more "flowery" than the way English is usually written. So writing in Arabic is quite different from writing in English, and it takes a lot of practice to write in a smooth, natural style.

And then there's the diglossia issue: the divide between the standard Arabic that's written and the Arabic people actually speak, which varies from place to place. You can think of the different dialects in terms of American, British, and Australian English, albeit with more differences. You can read more on the dialects below.

Any general tips on learning Arabic?

I'll focus on giving advice about learning Arabic specifically — there's plenty out there about language-learning in general. First of all, if you want to learn the alphabet, focus on learning it from the beginning and try and have it down as quickly as you can, without starting to rely on transliteration. Not only is transliteration inexact (although textbooks should use a more systematic system, if they use transliteration at all), it can be a crutch if you use it too much; learning the alphabet from the very start is much better.

From the very beginning, memorize the plural for every noun. Don't memorize a noun without its plural! You don't want to end up a few months or years later in a conversation where there's an embarrassing pause while you realize you don't know the plural for some really basic word, like "uncle." Just pair each noun with its plural in your mind, so when you think of the singular you automatically think of the plural, and vice versa.

Also memorize every verb along with any preposition that goes with it. As with any foreign language, a lot of the time Arabic uses prepositions where English doesn't, or uses different prepositions from those we'd use in English. And it's important to remember prepositions, because they can change the meaning of a verb completely. For example, حذر means "to be careful," and حذر من means "to warn."

Don't get sloppy with the second short vowel in the imperfect of form 1 verbs. Since it's irregular, you have to look it up in the dictionary and then memorize it. Do it for every form 1 verb. You derive stuff like commands and the future from the imperfect conjugations of verbs, so if you don't know the right pronunciation for some verb, you won't be able to come up with the right command for it. Also memorize the maSdar for every verb, focusing on the unpredictable form 1 maSdars.

And memorize the verb forms as soon as you can. It does come in very useful, and if you really focus on learning them, it's not hard to do. Just get a whiteboard and write out form 1 again and again until you know it, then add form 2 and write both forms 1 and 2 until you have them both down, then add form 3, and so forth.

Basically, make sure you establish a strong foundation as you start learning Arabic so you don't have to go back later to correct mistakes and fill in the gaps in your knowledge. As with any language, what you learn as you go along builds on what you've learned before, so make sure you have a strong base from the very start.

What is the best place to study Arabic in an intensive program?

This is another question there's no single "right answer" for. It depends on your goals, what dialect you're learning (if you're learning a dialect at all), etc. A few years ago, I would have recommended the AUC's Arabic Language Institute. The program is well-established and organized, with excellent teachers, and offers a wide range of options; you can focus on standard Arabic or learn both fuSHa and Egyptian 3ammiyya, and at the higher levels there are electives. However, they've moved to a new campus way out in the desert, entailing a long commute for students. So I'd be pretty hesitant to enroll in the program now. The CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) program, however, is located in the AUC's old campus in downtown Cairo (and it also has a branch in Damascus). I've heard somewhat mixed things about the program, but it's still the most prestigious Arabic program (open to advanced students only).

In general Egypt, especially Cairo, has many Arabic programs to pick from. If you want something a bit cheaper than the AUC, I've heard that ILI and Kalimat are good, but if you're in school you probably won't get credit hours from it. However, most young upper-middle class Egyptians speak English, which can impede the learning process, especially since even people who don't speak much English still want to practice it.

That's a problem in many major cities like Cairo, Amman, Beirut, and so on. While I've heard that Syria is a great place to go for Arabic study (Damascus is less Westernized than other Arab capitals, the people are friendly, and it's easier to get practice talking to them in Arabic), under the present circumstances it would be difficult indeed to study Arabic there. Once things settle down, Damascus University has an Arabic Language Center that mainly focuses on standard Arabic (apparently it's not too hard to get tutors to help pick up the local dialect).

Of course, in Lebanon there's the AUB (which focuses on fuSHa) and the LAU (which also focuses on MSA but includes the Lebanese dialect in its curriculum). However, I don't know too much about either program. Ditto for the ALIF program in Fez and Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

It's worth mentioning the Middlebury intensive summer Arabic program in the U.S., which is unique because it requires all students to sign a pledge promising to use only Arabic 24/7 the whole summer. I've only heard good things about this program; if you do apply, though, do it well in advance before space runs out!

Those are the main programs I know of, but here's an excellent list of intensive Arabic programs in the U.S. and Middle East that should give you lots of ideas on different possible choices.

What are some good books in Arabic I could read to practice?

The books I'm listing are mainly modern literature, particularly novels and some short stories, but if you want a good overview of Arabic literature, including many different time periods and forms of literature, I recommend Bassam K. Frangieh's Anthology of Arabic Literature, Culture, and Thought from Pre-Islamic Times to the Present. Obviously it's not totally comprehensive, as that would be impossible, but it's a good introduction to Arabic literature. And it's designed for the Arabic learner, as each selection is followed by a list of vocabulary.

Specific novels:Authors in general:
الزيني بركات (جمال الغيطاني)أليفة رفعت
ذات, اللجنة (صنع الله ابراهيم)سلوى بكر
عمارة يعقوبيان (علاء الأسواني)ايميلي نصرالله
الصبار (سحر خليفة)ابراهيم الكوني
باب الشمس, يالو (إلياس خوري)     ادوار الخراط
مدن الملح (عبد الرحمن منيف)نجيب محفوظ
ذاكرة الجسد (أحلام مستغاني)يوسف ادريس
الخبز الحافي (محمد شكري)احسان عبد القدوس
مزامير من ورق (نداء أبو علي)غسان كنفاني
وكالة عطية (خيري شلبي) 

Another note: if you're looking for literature in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, you won't find much. Your best bet is reading plays; while more serious/high-prestige works are written in fuSHa, comedic plays and plays with local themes are written in dialect. You could try مدرسة المشاغبين - علي سالم, a very well-known play that starred famous actors like Adel Imam and Ahmed Zaki at the beginning of their careers. There's also a book of five one-act plays in Egyptian Arabic, which includes both Arabic and transliterated English of the dialogue. It includes two plays each by Tawfiq el Hakim and Mahmoud Taymour, and one play by Ali Salem. I haven't read it all myself, but going from the Google Books preview, it looks like it could be very useful.

Also, some novels do include dialogue in 3ammiyya, like those of Ihsan Abdel Quddous and Yusuf Idris. There's an older novel written entirely in 3ammiyya called قنطرة الذي كفر - محمد مصطفى مشرفة. And recently several books written in 3ammiyya have been published:

تاكسي - خالد الخميسي - recounts conversations with Cairo taxi drivers (the dialogue, which is the majority of the book, is written entirely in 3ammiyya; the author's narration is in fuSHa)
عايزة أتجوز - غادة عبد العال - about a young woman's interaction with different suitors as she seeks marriage; see her blog
مترو - مجدي الشافعي - a banned graphic novel about a young man's plot to rob a bank
ربع جرام - عصام يوسف - a book about drug addiction in Egypt

As for poetry, you could try someone like Ahmed Fu'ad Negm or Salah Jahin.

Where can I find English-language movies/TV dubbed in Arabic?

I don't know where to find DVDs of dubbed movies, but this website has a number of streaming American movies dubbed in Arabic, as well as some dubbed TV shows.

Historically in the Arab world, American movies for adults were subtitled, and only animated movies and TV shows were dubbed. But in the fall of 2009, the satellite TV channel MBC started airing dubbed versions of American movies, which have in turn made their way online. Generally, fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and historical dramas like Gladiator and Braveheart, are dubbed in standard Arabic. Contemporary-set dramas and comedies are dubbed in Egyptian or Levantine Arabic. Foreign TV shows, whether American, Turkish, or Mexican, tend to be dubbed in Levantine Arabic (Lost, House, Bones, and others), though some are dubbed in standard Arabic (Prison Break) or Egyptian Arabic (Ugly Betty).

I want to learn Arabic on my own. What are the best textbooks to use?

First of all, I'll just say that learning Arabic, especially starting out with it, is difficult enough in a class environment; if you're learning on your own, you should do your best to find a tutor or at least a native speaker who can help you out occasionally. Here's a list of major Arabic textbooks:

The Arabic alphabet Arabic textbooks
  • Arabic for Life by Bassam K. Frangieh — This beginners' textbook has great reviews for its organization, clarity, and good pacing. It even incorporates the teaching of Arabic handwriting (the ruq3a script), which is strangely rare for beginners' textbooks. While I haven't used this book myself, it does seem to be a good choice for self-learning.
  • Mastering Arabic by Jane Wightwick & Mahmoud Gaafar — This book also has good reviews for its pacing, engaging content (not too heavy on grammar), and use of exercises and repetition to reinforce what has been covered. This would also seem to be a good choice for self-learners. There is a supplementary activity book and a second volume.
  • Al-Kitaab fi Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya, by Brustad et al. — the most frequently used textbook in U.S. Arabic classes. The Al-Kitaab program is very well-developed, and the books all include CDs with video and audio clips. However, many people complain about the organization of the books; complaints I've seen include: that learners are given exercises that require grammar/vocabulary knowledge that has not yet been covered; that words taught are often not the most basic, useful words many people would like to know; and that grammar concepts are not covered comprehensively, step-by-step, but rather in a scattershot way. Also, if you buy this book you will need to purchase a separate answer key and website subscription (in order to do activities). This book is really designed for a classroom setting; I wouldn't recommend it for self-learners. The series is currently being updated, and so far Part One has been published in a third edition.
  • Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, by Peter Abboud — From what I understand, this book's coverage of grammar is very thorough (albeit dry), but it's very lacking in vocabulary and would be difficult for a beginner to use without a teacher's guidance.
  • Al-Kitaab al-Asaasi by El-Said Mohamed Badawi — This is the textbook I used when starting out with Arabic, but I would definitely not recommend it unless you're already at an intermediate or advanced level. The book is well-organized and is pretty decent, but it is written entirely in Arabic, and would be virtually impossible for a beginner to get through outside of a class environment.
  • Living Arabic by Munther Younes — This textbook is pretty unique in that it integrates colloquial (Levantine) Arabic with standard Arabic in a way that reflects the way Arabic is actually used. Apparently it works very well when used with a tutor or in a classroom environment, but is very unsuited to independent learners as it lacks the necessary explanations and vocabulary definitions for self-study.
Supplements to your textbook
  • Your First 100 Words in Arabic — a good start for basic vocabulary.
  • Easy Arabic Grammar — a good choice to learn the basics of Arabic grammar. It's not totally comprehensive, but it gives a relatively engaging and easy to understand framework of Arabic grammar.
Reference grammars

If you're at an intermediate high/advanced level and are looking for a reference grammar, there are quite a few options.

Style guides

If you're at an advanced level and want to work on your writing, there are several books that can help.

  • The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic by Nariman Naili al-Warraki et al. is an excellent way to learn all those pesky connectors (you know, أما, فـ, لذلك, and so on) so you can make your writing flow better. And it will help your overall understanding of Arabic sentences and how they fit together.
  • Mahdi Alosh's Using Arabic: A Guide to Contemporary Usage covers both vocabulary and grammar from a practical point of view, and is worth checking out.
Media Arabic
  • Media Arabic by Alaa Elgibali and Nevenka Korica is a good place to start. (The book I used when learning media Arabic, Media Arabic Volume One by Nariman Naili al-Warraki, no longer seems to be available.) Of course, you should supplement any media Arabic textbook with your own reading/watching of the news in Arabic.
Egyptian Arabic

For beginners:

  • Lonely Planet's Egyptian Arabic Phrasebook - I know it seems strange to recommend a travel phrasebook, but it is an excellent little book, and includes a large amount of useful vocabulary, not limited to just making hotel reservations and so forth. I used it all the time during my first year of Arabic. The book also includes some well laid out, clearly explained grammar info, although probably not enough to use by itself; some previous knowledge of standard Arabic grammar would help. And it has everything in both Arabic script and English transliteration (although I've noticed that sometimes what's written in Arabic is standard, while the transliteration is colloquial Arabic).
  • Kullu Tamam by Manfred Woidich and Rabha Heinen-Nasr - This book provides good coverage of Egyptian Arabic grammar that can provide a solid foundation for understanding how to construct sentences. It does have numerous typos and errors that could be confusing to learners, so it could do with a corrected second edition.
  • Kallimni 'Arabi by Samia Louis - This five-book series teaches Egyptian Arabic from the beginning to advanced levels. However, as the instructions are apparently entirely in Arabic, these books are not suited for beginning self-learners; they'd probably be more useful for intermediate learners.
  • Kalaam Gamiil by Abbas al-Tonsi, Laila al-Sawi, and Susanne Massoud - The first volume is designed to take students with a foundation in standard Arabic to an intermediate level in the Egyptian dialect; the second volume is on an upper-intermediate to advanced level.

For intermediate to advanced learners:

  • A Comprehensive Study of Egyptian Arabic by Ernest T. Abdel-Massih et al. - an excellent reference for learners at this level, with the caveat that it is rather old (I believe it was written in the 1970s), and therefore some of the vocabulary is a little out of date. However, overall it's still very useful, although it's not glossy or flashy. These books are available for download in PDF format here (scroll to the bottom and click on the "Full view" links). The University of Michigan press website also links to other publications available online, such as An Introduction to Egyptian Arabic.
    • Volume One consists of passages dealing with cultural topics, which would perhaps be more useful in a class setting, but is still good.
    • Volume Two is a compilation of many, many proverbs (arranged thematically) and idioms, and is a really useful way to learn expressions that make your speech sound more "native."
    • Volume Three is a reference grammar, with detailed explanations of many aspects of Egyptian Arabic grammar.
    • Volume Four is a great lexicon, with many vocabulary lists arranged by theme (the first half of the book is Arabic-English, the second half is English-Arabic).
  • Arabi Liblib by Kamal Al Ekhnawy and Jamal Ali - a three-volume series covering colloquial Egyptian proverbs, idioms, and adjectives. The explanations of all the expressions are in (colloquial) Arabic, so you do need to be at an advanced level to get the most out of these books. If you are at that level, these are truly excellent books that capture colloquial Arabic the way it's really spoken in Egypt, including very slangy and colorful expressions. I found a pretty comprehensive review of the first volume here.
Arabic dictionaries
  • The Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary is without a doubt essential for any serious student of Arabic. It's arranged by root instead of alphabetically, which can take a while to get used to, but once you get used to the system, it's quite user-friendly, and it makes it even more useful to have all the words from a single root together.
  • The Hinds/Badawi Egyptian Arabic dictionary is excellent. It's also arranged by root, and it includes sample sentences, proverbs, and so on to demonstrate usage of the words, which is really, really helpful. It's pricey but worth every penny (though it's literally doubled in price since I bought it from Amazon, so you might try and find it elsewhere).
  • Easy Arabic Script by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar is a good resource for learning correct Arabic handwriting. Most Arabic students start off writing in the naskh style, which is simple and easy to read but looks sort of like elementary school kids' print writing to Arabs. The ruq3a script is what's used in native speakers' everyday handwriting, so it's worthwhile to try and write like that.

The Arabic language
What's the root system?

Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter root that connotes a general meaning. (There are some four-letter roots, but they're quite rare.) The usual example given is d-r-s, which has to do with studying. So the form 1 verb درس darasa means "to study," while the form 2 verb درّس darrasa means "to teach"; درس dars means "lesson," مدرسة madrasa means "school," and مدرّس mudarris means "teacher." And so forth; you can derive tons of words with related meanings from a single root. It's really quite helpful; if you come across an unfamiliar word but recognize the root, you can use that knowledge to make a good guess at the meaning.

What are the verb forms?

Every trilateral Arabic root can (theoretically) be transformed into one of fifteen possible verb forms (أوزان awzaan). Each root has a general meaning (like "leaving," for example), and when you add a specific combination of letters to transform the root into one of the verb forms, that alters the meaning (like "making someone leave"). More details on each verb form here.

Are broken plurals completely unpredictable? Do they have any patterns?

First of all, an explanation of broken plurals for those who don't know: the majority of masculine nouns in Arabic have irregular (aka "broken") plurals. Although there are some regular plurals, most nouns don't fall under this category. So many nouns have plurals that seem completely random at first (the plural of كتاب kitaab is كتب kutub; the plural of ولد walad is أولاد awlaad).

But broken plurals do indeed have patterns; you can see a list here. I don't really recommend memorizing the list, though; just memorize every plural for every noun, and you'll learn them intuitively and eventually be able to guess at the plurals of new nouns you learn.

If the short vowels aren't written, how do I know how to pronounce words?

First, an explanation: in Arabic, only long vowels are written out. Short vowels are left out, except in the Qur'an, Bible, and children's books. Therefore, a beginning student would see كتب as k-t-b, and not know which vowels to insert between letters. This word could be "kataba" (he wrote), "kutiba" (it was written), or "kutub" (books). How do you know which one it is? Well, if you're an absolute beginner, you won't know all the possible pronunciations, and you simply won't know how to pronounce it without checking a dictionary or asking a native speaker. This is frustrating, but as you learn more vocabulary and grammar, things will get easier. Once you gain more knowledge of Arabic, you'll know that كتب could be a verb in the regular past tense (kataba) or the passive voice (kutiba), or a noun (kutub). Then you'll figure out the correct pronunciation from context.

Learning the verb forms as soon as you can will also help with this. You'll know all the patterns for conjugating the different verb types and deriving certain words (like active/passive participles) from verbs. For example, you'll know that form 3 verbs are pronounced يُفاعِلُ in the present tense. Then when you see يغادر, you'll know the pronunciation without having to look it up. Still, when you see a form 1 verb you don't know, you will have to look it up in the dictionary to know the pronunciation of the present-tense conjugation. But basically, reading Arabic will get easier with time and knowledge.

How similar is Arabic to Persian?

Persian does use the same alphabet, with a few additions and modifications (and significant pronunciation differences), and it has a good amount of Arabic loan words; about 30 to 50 percent of the Persian lexicon is derived from Arabic, although a lot of words have changed their meanings from the Arabic original. But since Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language and Persian is an Indo-European language (like English), they are fundamentally different languages.

It would probably be safe to say that for a native English speaker, Persian would be easier to learn than Arabic. It has no grammatical gender, case endings, or noun-adjective agreement. It doesn't have a root system like Arabic, instead using affixation (prefixes and suffixes) in a similar way to English. There are no verb forms either, but verbs in Persian do present their own set of complications.

For more details on the relationship between Arabic and Persian, check out this great article.

So what's all this about standard Arabic and the dialects? If I study standard Arabic, how much will it help me in the Middle East?

There are two basic varieties of Arabic: standard Arabic (الفصحى al-fuSHa) and colloquial Arabic (العامية al-3ammiyya). Standard Arabic is the formal variety of the language. It's used in the news media, literature and formal writing in general, and official occasions. It's also the kind of Arabic that is usually taught in Western universities. If you mainly want to do research in Arabic, or understand Al-Jazeera, Al-Ahram, and Naguib Mahfouz books, standard Arabic is what you need to learn. But Arabs don't speak standard Arabic in their daily lives, nor is it anyone's native language. Arabs grow up speaking their own dialects and start to learn fuSHa only once they enter school, although they develop a passive understanding of it prior to that time via the media. Later, after finishing their education, many Arabs lose a great deal of their active knowledge of fuSHa, particularly the details of grammar rules. They may still be able to feel out the correct grammar by intuition, but they won't be able to give an explanation of why it's correct.

Outside of formal contexts in general, Arabs use their own dialects, which all diverge from standard Arabic in different ways. Colloquial Arabic is used in songs, TV shows (musalsalaat) and talk shows, movies, political cartoons, and some literature (plays, a small amount of poetry, and some novels which include dialogue in 3ammiyya). Many Arabs don't consider 3ammiyya to be "real" Arabic, and view it as a low kind of slang, not a valid form of Arabic. Others, like Egyptian and Lebanese nationalists who reject an Arab identity, have tried to promote their local dialects while denigrating standard Arabic as outdated. There are many interesting socio-political aspects to the Arabic diglossia issue (diglossia refers to the divide between different forms of a language, like standard and colloquial Arabic).

The Arabic dialects can be classified into four categories:

  1. Maghrebi - spoken in Northern African countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia
  2. Egyptian
  3. Levantine - spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan
  4. Gulf/Khaliiji - spoken in the Persian Gulf; Yemeni Arabic is sufficiently different from the other dialects spoken in the Gulf that it can be classified on its own, though.

In each of these regions are various local sub-dialects (for example, in Egypt there's the Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt, etc. dialects), but nevertheless they share enough common characteristics that they can be classified in one category, and people from different parts of the same region will have little trouble understanding each other.

If you only know standard Arabic and have no knowledge of any of the dialects, you can go to the Middle East and be understood when you speak to people (unless they're very, very uneducated), but you probably won't understand a whole lot when they speak to you. Among the more educated segment of the population, people generally can speak in fuSHa, but it feels unnatural and strange to them. They may use a more "elevated" dialect, mixing in some fuSHa with their dialect, but the base of what they speak is still colloquial. As for more uneducated people, they would have a lot more difficulty speaking in fuSHa.

Basically, if you only know fuSHa, you'll miss out on a huge part of Arab culture. You'll be unable to interact naturally with people (even if you get people to talk to you in fuSHa, it's not the norm for them), and you won't be able to enjoy any aspects of popular culture like music, TV (aside from news broadcasts etc.), or movies. Of course, if you only know 3ammiyya, you'll be shut out from a whole other chunk of Arab culture: literature and the media. That's why it's really best to learn both standard Arabic and a dialect. But if you don't have the time, consider your goals and choose which variety of Arabic to learn based on what you want to do with Arabic. If you want to travel in the Middle East, talk with Arab family or friends, and enjoy aspects of popular culture like movies, then focus on colloquial Arabic. If you're interested in Arabic for research purposes or want to focus on literature or the news media, learn standard Arabic.

Which dialect should I learn?

That really depends. If you have a special interest in a particular part of the Arab world, or if you have friends or family from a certain area, go ahead and learn that dialect — although if you're interested in, say, Morocco or Algeria, just keep in mind that Arabs outside the Maghreb cannot understand these dialects in their "pure" form. (The first time Ahmed Ben Bella spoke to the Arab League, he had to do so in French, because nobody could understand his Algerian dialect!) If you want to learn 3ammiyya but have no real leaning towards one variety or another, I would recommend Egyptian or Levantine Arabic. Egyptian is the most widely understood dialect, thanks to the well-established music, TV, and film industry there; Egyptian media is popular enough that no matter where you go in the Arab world, you'll keep hearing Egyptian Arabic on TV and the radio. So if you learn Egyptian Arabic, people all over the Arab world will be able to understand you easily.

Levantine Arabic is the next most widely understood dialect after Egyptian. Thanks to the popularity of Lebanese music, Syrian musalsalaat, and so on, the Levantine dialect is well-understood in the Arab world. Gulf Arabic is not as widely understood outside the Khaliij, though, and as for Maghrebi Arabic, Arabs from the Maghreb generally have to modify their speech significantly to be understood when talking to other Arabs (see the next question). Since this is harder for non-native speakers to do, I would recommend choosing a dialect that's easily understood throughout the Arab world like Egyptian or Levantine.

How mutually intelligible are the dialects? How do Arabic speakers from different regions communicate with each other?

Generally speaking, "mainstream" urban dialects, particularly Egyptian and Levantine dialects, are fairly mutually intelligible, despite some pronunciation and vocabulary differences. Likewise, rural dialects tend to share some characteristics and thus be pretty mutually intelligible. And people from all over the Arab world usually find it easy to understand people from Egypt and the Levant, although this isn't necessarily because of linguistic reasons; it's more because of media exposure.

On the other hand, Arabs without any familiarity with North African and Gulf dialects tend to find it harder to understand those varieties of Arabic — especially North African dialects, which are quite different from all the other dialects due to Berber and French influences.

As for how Arabic speakers from different regions communicate with each other, if they're from Egypt or the Levant, they simply use their own dialect regardless of whom they're talking to. However, Arabs from other areas (who are speaking to people without prior familiarity with their dialect) generally have to modify their speech in order to be understood. They do not simply switch to fuSHa; since fuSHa is not spoken in everyday situations, this would feel strange. Generally it feels more natural to simply incorporate elements from Egyptian or Levantine dialects, or even switch entirely to one of those dialects.

If you learn one dialect well and also have a good knowledge of standard Arabic, switching to another dialect shouldn't be too hard. For one thing, the dialects share a number of common characteristics across the board that will help you make sense of them. And if you have a good knowledge of fuSHa vocabulary, that'll help too, since a number of the different words used in different dialects come from fuSHa and just take on slightly different meanings. (For example, if you know that the word مناخير means "nostrils" in fuSHa, it won't be too hard to guess that in Egyptian Arabic it means "nose.") There may be a period of adjustment at first while you get used to the different pronunciation, rhythms of speech, vocabulary, and so on, but it won't be impossible by any means, and it gets easier with practice.

Which dialect is closest to standard Arabic?

None of them! Lots of Arabs say that their dialect is the closest to fuSHa, but the truth is that they've all diverged from standard Arabic in one way or another. One dialect may be more "standard" than another in some way, but then it will also be less standard in some other aspect, and so forth. It is safe to say, though, that Maghrebi Arabic is the farthest from fuSHa.

Which is easier to learn, standard Arabic or a dialect?

The common answer to this question is that dialects are easier to learn than standard Arabic. Personally, I believe that dialects are indeed easier for beginning students, and if you want only to reach a basic level of knowledge, then a dialect may well be easier for you. This is because certain elements of colloquial Arabic are simplified compared to standard Arabic (for example, dialects don't have dual verb conjugations; number-noun agreement is simpler; there are no case endings, etc.).

However, if your goal is complete fluency, then I don't really believe that learning a dialect to total fluency is any easier than learning standard Arabic to total fluency. Even after you reach a decent level of knowledge in a dialect, you'll still have to learn new idioms, additional meanings for words you already know, use the active participle instead of a present-tense verb in the right situation, etc.

How easy is it to go from studying standard Arabic to a dialect?

If you already know standard Arabic pretty well, it wouldn't be that hard to pick up a dialect. You'd need to learn the ways in which the dialect's grammar differs from fuSHa, as well as common colloquial words. After that, you'd simply need to expose yourself to the dialect. Listen to songs, watch movies or TV, and of course, talk to people and listen to what they say (ideally in a country where the dialect is spoken).

Are standard and colloquial Arabic like completely different languages? If I want to learn Arabic, will I basically have to learn two separate languages?

No. Standard and colloquial Arabic exist on a continuum, and are not separate languages. Indeed, the linguist El-Said Badawi created a five-level continuum to capture the way Arabic is used by native speakers in Egypt:

  1. فصحى التراث (fuSHa al-turāth) - the classical Arabic of the Qur'an
  2. فصحى العصر (fuSHa al-3aSr) - the modern standard Arabic used today
  3. عامية المثقفين (3āmmiyyat al-muthaqqafīn) - educated spoken Arabic heavily influenced by standard
  4. عامية المتنورين (3āmmiyyat al-mutanawwarīn) - semi-literate Arabic or everyday colloquial with lots of loanwords from other languages
  5. عامية الأميين (3āmmiyyat al-'ummiyyīn) - illiterate spoken Arabic with no influence from standard Arabic and no loanwords

The same person might switch between these levels of Arabic depending on the situation. For example, a university professor might use educated spoken Arabic while lecturing in class, then switch to everyday colloquial while interacting with a shopkeeper. This same person would be capable of understanding the Arabic of the news media as well as the classical Arabic used in religious TV shows. And they would not view these different gradations of Arabic as "separate languages" at all.

To a brand-new Arabic student intimidated by the differences between standard and colloquial Arabic, it might seem that they're like separate languages, but you can really think of standard and colloquial Arabic as a kind of Venn diagram; there are many areas where they overlap. While there are some differences in pronunciation, most letters are pronounced the same; while much everyday vocabulary differs from standard Arabic, most higher-level vocabulary is the same; and while there are differences in grammar usage, much colloquial grammar is a simplified form of standard grammar (though colloquial Arabic grammar presents its own unique challenges).

So are the different dialects like separate languages? With the exception of Maghrebi Arabic, which as discussed above is sufficiently different from the other dialects and from standard Arabic to make it a sort of outlier, you can again think of them as a sort of Venn diagram. Standard Arabic would be the main circle, with the different dialects circles that intersect with both standard Arabic and each other. So Levantine Arabic has commonalities with standard Arabic and with Egyptian Arabic, for instance.

Basically, don't be too intimidated by the differences between standard and colloquial Arabic. While Arabic diglossia does present a challenge to non-native speakers, it's not insurmountable by any means, and it does not mean you'll have to learn two separate languages.

What are some of the characteristics of the different dialects?

Speaking generally, and mostly confining my remarks to Egyptian and Levantine Arabic (since those are the only two I have any real knowledge of):

Pronunciation: The ق (qaaf) is often pronounced as a glottal stop in many urban dialects, as a hard G in many parts of the Gulf and rural and Bedouin dialects, and as a K in some rural areas of Palestine. The ك (kaaf) is sometimes pronounced as a "ch" in parts of Iraq, rural Palestine, and the Gulf. In the Levant, the ta marbuuTa is often pronounced "-e" (Palestine/Jordan) or "-i" (Lebanon) instead of "-a." The ج (jiim) is pronounced as a hard G in urban Egyptian Arabic (and also parts of Yemen). In Egypt, the ث (th) is usually pronounced as an "s" or "t," the ذ (dh) becomes a "d" or "z," and the ظ (DH) is pronounced more like an emphatic "z," and sometimes becomes a ض.

Vocabulary: The dialects include a lot of loan words from different languages like French, Turkish, Greek, English, Persian, and Italian. Here are some examples used in Egyptian Arabic (some of these words are also used in standard Arabic):

Turkish - kobri (bridge), from köprü; ooDa (room), from oda; šakuuš (hammer), from çekiç; yafTa (sign), from yafta; haanim (respectful title for a lady), from hanım; baaša and beih (respectful titles of address), from paşa and bey; balTagi (thug), from baltacı; gumruk (customs) from gümrük; gazma (shoe), from çizme (the Levantine word for shoe, kundara, is also from Turkish - kundura)

French - kanaba (sofa), from canapé; dušš (shower), from douche; abažoora (lamp), from abat-jour; mokett (wall-to-wall carpet), from moquette; aSanSeir (elevator), from ascenseur; sešwaar (hairdryer), from séchoir; ruuž (lipstick), from rouge; iišaarb (scarf), from écharpe; balTo (coat), from paletot; žuup (skirt), from jupe; kilott (underpants), from culotte; dantilla/dantel (lace), from dentelle; bissiin (pool), from piscine; blaaž (beach), from plage; lesaans (BA), from licence; gatooh (cake), from gâteau; šampinyoon (mushroom), from champignon; reklaam (advertisement), from réclame; garsoon (waiter), from garçon; kuwafeir (hairdresser), from coiffeur

Italian - mooDa (style, fashion), from moda; gambari (shrimp), from gambero; kawitš (tire), from caucciù; gunilla (skirt), from gonnella; guwanti (gloves), from guanti; žakitta (jacket), from giacchetta; bosTa (mail, postal service), from posta; rušitta (medical prescription), from ricetta; faraawla (strawberry), from fragola; želaati (ice cream), from gelato; baruuka (wig), from parrucca

Persian - dulaab (cabinet), from dol-âb; buršaam (pills, tablets), from parchîn; kaškuul (notebook), from kashkûl; banafsigi (violet), from banafsha; tarzi (tailor), from darzî; kamanga (violin), from kamâncha; zarkiš (to embroider/decorate), from zar-kash; lobya (string beans), from lûbiyâ

English - narfiz (to annoy s.o.), from nervous; kombyuuter (computer); internet; sayyev (to save [ex.] a computer file); farmaT (to format [ex.] a hard drive); tinis (tennis); gool (goal [in sports]); šuuTa (a kick or shot [in sports]); fawl (a foul [in sports]); viidiyo kliip (music video); kliinex (paper napkin); turmomitr (thermometer); kamira (camera); luuri (truck/lorry); aayis kriim (ice cream)

Greek - Tarabeiza (table), from trapezi; kaburiya (crab), from kabouros; istakooza (lobster), from astakos; salaTa (salad), from salata, bar'uu' (plums), from praikokion

However, most of the colloquial words that differ from standard Arabic are concentrated in the area of everyday vocabulary. The majority of words in, say, Egyptian Arabic are the same as they are in fuSHa, just pronounced a bit differently — and especially once you get into more high-level vocabulary, like the words used in the media, the words used in fuSHa are also used in the dialects, with the only real difference being some pronunciation modifications. Here's a list of some basic colloquial words to give a quick idea of a few vocabulary differences between dialects:

EnglishEgyptian ArabicLevantine ArabicIraqi ArabicMoroccan Arabic
whatايه (eih)شو (šuu) or ايش (aiš)شنو (šunu)أش (aš) or شنو (šnuu) or أشنو (ašnuu)
howازاي (izzaay)كيف (keif)شلون (šloon)كيفاش (kifaaš)
whyليه (leih)ليش (leiš)ليش (leiš) or الويش (ilweiš) or لويش (luweiš)لاش (laš) or علاش (3laaš)
whereفين (fein)وين (wein)وين (wein)فين (fiin)
thingحاجة (Haaga)شي (šii)شي (šii)شي (šii)
nowدلوقت (dilwa'ti)هلّق (halla')هسا (hissa)دابا (daaba)
goodكويس (kwayyis)منيح (mniiH)زين (zein)مزيان (mzyan)
veryقوي ('awi)كتير (ktiir)كلش (kulliš)بزاف (bzzaf)
to wantعايز/عاوز (the active participle 3aayiz/3aawiz)بدّ (badd-/bidd- + possessive pronoun)راد - يريد (raad - yriid)بغى (bġa)
shoeجزمة (gazma)كندرة (kundara/kendara)قندرة (qundara)سباط (sbbaT)
mouthبقّ (bo'')تمّ (timm)حلگ (Halig)فم (fomm)
tomatoطماطم (TamaaTim)بندورة (bandoora/banadoora)طماطة (TamaaTa)ماطيشة (maTiiša)
to sayقال - يقول ('aal - yi'uul)حكى - يحكي (Haka - yiHki)قال - يقول (gaal - yguul)قال - يقول (gal - yiguul)
fridgeتلاجة (tallaaga)برّاد (birraad/barraad)ثلاجة (tallaaja)تلاجة (tlaja)
tableطربيزة (Tarabeiza)طاولة (Taawle)منضدة (manDada) or ميز (meiz)طبلة (Tbla)
clothesهدوم (huduum)أواعي (awaa3i)ملابس (malaabis) or اهدوم (ihduum)حوايج (Hwayj)
moneyفلوس (filuus)مصاري (maSaari)فلوس (fluus)فلوس (flus)
carعربية (3arabiyya)سيارة (sayyaara)سيارة (sayyaara)طوموبيل (Tomobiil)
bottleقزازة ('izaaza)قنينة ('aniine)بطل (buTil)قرعة (qr3a)
cheeseجبنة (gibna)جبنة (jebne)جبن (jibin)فرماج (frmaj)
ice creamآيس كريم (aayis kriim) or جيلاتي (želaati)بوظة (buuZa)موطة (muuTa) or دوندرما (doonderma)لگلاس (laglas)
bowlسلطنية (sulTaniyya)جاط (jaaT)كاسة (kaasa)زلافة (zlafa)
to giveادى - يدي (idda - yiddi)عطى - يعطي (3aTa - yi3Ti)نطا - ينطي (niTa - yinTi)عطى - يعطي (3Ta - yi3Ti)
to closeقفل - يقفل ('ifil - yi'fil)سكر - يسكر (sakkar - ysakker)سد - يسد (sadd - ysidd)سد - يسد (sdd - ysedd)

Grammar: Colloquial Arabic in general simplifies certain aspects of standard Arabic grammar. However, that's not to say that colloquial Arabic grammar doesn't present challenges of its own. There are no case endings in 3ammiyya, and there are no dual conjugations of verbs either. A "b-" present continuous prefix is added to the imperfect (in some parts of the Levant عم is also added before the verb). Instead of using سـ or سوف to indicate the future, a "h-" prefix is used (although in some parts of the Levant, راح is said before the verb instead). Negation is simpler with the use of مش as opposed to ليس and its variants, and in Egypt, the past and present tenses are negated with a ما...ش prefix-suffix combination (the Levant usually just uses the "ma" prefix). The future tense is negated with مش instead of لن. And so forth.

Arabic on your computer
What are all those numbers some people use when writing Arabic online?

They were developed in chat rooms where people couldn't write using the Arabic alphabet, so they had to type in English transliteration and come up with ways to represent the Arabic letters that don't exist in English.

ء = 2 ح = 7 ظ = 6'
ع = 3 خ = 5 or 7' ص = 9
غ = 3' or gh ط = 6 ض = 9'

How can I read Arabic fonts and write in Arabic on my computer?

Here's how to enable Arabic on Windows. Mac users can use this information to enable Arabic support. If you want to be able to type in Arabic without going through any of those steps, you can use this online Arabic keyboard, which you can also use to learn the Arabic keyboard layout. For really exhaustive information on enabling Arabic for Windows, this webpage covers just about everything.

How do you say...?
How do you say "Welcome/hello/happy birthday" etc. in Arabic?

I have an entire page dedicated to common phrases like this here. But you can use أهلا وسهلا ahlan wa sahlan or مرحبا marHaba for both "Welcome" and "Hello." "Happy birthday" is عيد ميلاد سعيد 3iid miilaad sa3iid, but people usually just use كل سنة وانت طيب kull sana winta Tayyib (in Egypt), or كل سنة وانت سالم kull sane winte saalim (in the Levant). The standard phrase is كل عام وأنتم بخير kull 3aam wa-antum bexeir. If you're addressing a woman, say كل سنة وانت طيبة kull sana winti Tayyiba or كل سنة وانت سالمة kull sane winti saalme. (The standard phrase stays the same.)

How do you say "I love you" in Arabic? What are some Arabic endearments?
 Standard ArabicEgyptian Arabic
Addressed to a manأحبك - uHibbukaبحبك - baHebbak
Addressed to a womanأحبك - uHibbukiبحبك - baHebbik
Addressed to two peopleأحبكما - uHibbukuma    بحبكو - baHebbuku
Addressed to three or more people, at least one of whom is a man    أحبكم - uHibbukumبحبكو - baHebbuku
Addressed to three or more womenأحبكن - uHibbukunnaبحبكو - baHebbuku

You can say أنا "ana" beforehand, but it's not really necessary, since it's clear that it's "I" just from the conjugation. If you want to say you love someone "a lot," you can add كثيرا katiiran or حبا جما Hubban jamman in fuSHa, or قوي 'awi in 3ammiyya. Or for an even more enthusiastic (colloquial) emphasis, you can say قد الدنيا 'add id-dunya, which would sound a little corny but cute.

And here's a list of Arabic endearments. All of these are used in Egyptian Arabic, as well as other dialects, and will be understood by any Arabic speaker. Note that if you use them to address someone, they should be preceded by يا (ya); ex. "ya Habiibi," "ya ruuHi."

حبيبي Habiibi (to a man or a woman); حبيبتي Habibti (to a woman)my darling (also used between friends and family, including people of the same sex)
حبيب قلبي Habiib 'albi (to a man); حبيبة قلبي Habibet 'albi (to a woman)my heart's darling
عزيزي 3aziizi (to a man or a woman); عزيزتي 3azizti (to a woman)my dear
روحي ruuHimy soul
عيني 3einimy eye
عيوني 3oyuunimy eyes
نور عيني / عينايا (nuur 3eini/3einaya)light of my eye/eyes
حياتي Hayaati; عمري 3omrimy life
غالي ġaali (to a man); غالية ġaliya (to a woman)precious
عسل 3asalhoney
حلو Helw (to a man); حلوة Helwa (to a woman)sweet

How do you say "I miss you" in Arabic?
 Standard Arabic
Addressed to a manأنا مشتاق(ة) إليك - ana muštaaq(at)un ileika
Addressed to a womanأنا مشتاق(ة) إليك - ana muštaaq(at)un ileiki
Addressed to two peopleأنا مشتاق(ة) إليكما - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikuma
Addressed to three or more people, at least one of whom is a man    أنا مشتاق(ة) إليكم - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikum
Addressed to three or more womenأنا مشتاق(ة) إليكن - ana muštaaq(at)un ileikunna

I put the appropriate phrase if you're a woman in parentheses — so if you're male, ignore what's in the parentheses and use مشتاق muštaaqun, and if you're female, use مشتاقة muštaaqatun.

For the Egyptian dialect, there are actually three ways to say "I miss you." The first uses the past-tense conjugation of the verb وحش, but even though it's past tense, it's frequently used with a present-tense meaning. The second uses the present-tense conjugation of the verb. And the third uses the active participle to describe a state of being, which in this case is the state of missing someone:

 Past tensePresent tenseActive participle
Addressed to a manوحشتني - waHašteniبتوحشني - betewHašniانت واحشني - inta waHešni
Addressed to a womanوحشتيني - waHaštiiniبتوحشيني - betewHašiiniانتي واحشاني - inti waHšaani
Addressed to more than one personوحشتوني - waHaštuuniبتوحشوني - betewHašuuniانتو واحشني - intu waHšenni

If that confused you, just pick one — any is fine!