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There is no Arabic Posted by on Nov 18, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Vanilla Arabic
Indecision. It’s the worst.

Just the word sounds nasty. Too close to “incision” for my taste, like something sharp and precise but brutal. Not being able to decide between options is crippling. It’s like being frozen by some kind of cruel ice witch, unable to move forward or side to side or even backward. It prevents you from making any progress of any kind. It’s far better to make a bad decision and deal with the consequences than to remain in that ghastly no-mans-land of indecision, straddling the fence, unable to put your foot down on either side.

Simple, everyday choices can be sabotaged by indecision. What should I wear to work? That’s nice, but I wore it last time, and I don’t want them to think I’ve only got one set of clothes. That’s also nice, but I don’t know if I’ll be warm enough on the ride over. What about this third option? It’s warmer and I didn’t wear it last time, but it’s not very comfortable. Is it better to be warm, comfortable or stylish? Don’t I have something that fits all three requirements? Yes, I do! Except…this one looks terrible with my shoes. I’m your regular vanilla straight white male, and this particular indecision often brings me literally to my knees, rooting around in the bottom drawer for something that might work better than the options I simply can’t decide between.

But the terrible purgatory of indecision lasts far longer, and has more devastating effect, with larger life decisions. For example, I have always wanted to learn Arabic. I’m already quite addicted to speaking foreign languages while traveling, ever since I learned that my passable French was a lifesaver in Morocco. I love the idea of traveling through the Middle East, delighting locals with enough Arabic to get me invited for tea at their homes, using it as a surprise bargaining chip when haggling in the markets and feeling better about myself not being “that” kind of westerner only peering at their culture from across the language barrier.

There’s just one problem: “Arabic” is not a language.

As demonstrated in the comic above, “Arabic” is more accurately a term for a collection of related languages, sort of like Romance languages are related through Latin. And just like speaking French does not mean you’ll understand Portuguese, learning one kind of Arabic does not necessarily grant you access to the other types. Unlike European languages, however, Arabic throws on a second layer of complication: media Arabic vs. colloquial Arabic. If you’re in Italy, the TV and newspapers will use regular old standard Italian, which everyone also speaks. Yes, you might hear a very strange, very different dialect between locals in the countryside, but for the most part everyone can still speak the standard version. With Arabic, Modern Standard (MSA) is exclusively used in the media, and as it’s not based on any particular dialect, nobody speaks it on the street. You might make yourself understood, but you aren’t going to understand what anyone else is saying. If you want to do that, you essentially have to choose one of the chief dialects, depending on your area of interest: Maghrebi Arabic (for North Africa), Egyptian Arabic (for Egypt; also the most common dialect used in television show dubbing), Gulf Arabic (for Saudia Arabia and the other Gulf states) or Levantine Arabic (for Syria, Palestine, Jordan, etc). Generally speaking, these dialects are not mutually intelligible, so you might as well be choosing between Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese.

And this is where my old nemesis indecision comes in.

I can’t choose between the dialects. I don’t favor one region over another, and I know that if I focus on one, I’ll find myself in situations wishing I had learned another. It’s probably not a good idea to learn two or three at the same time, or I’ll just get them all confused. So what do I do? What do I do?

Currently, nothing. I’m so paralyzed by my indecision on this matter that I’ve learned exactly zero Arabic. It’s a shame, because it’s a language I would really enjoy learning, to get away from the Euro-languages in which I’m currently steeped and see the world from another linguistic perspective. It’s topical, especially living in Europe, with so many immigrants coming in from Arabic-speaking countries, and my wife is obsessed with Arabic culture, so I know I’d have a study partner. I really want to learn Arabic!

But then I remember: there is no “Arabic,” and I’m paralyzed again.

What do you think I should do?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Valery:

    I don’t know what you should do but I totally understand this headache! Some time ago I wasn’t able to choose btw chinese dialects so I went study korean.Though I find it kind of strange-that sometimes it’s easier to choose and learn couple of european languages than to do it with dialect of asia/africa,even though the territory of that dialect can be more than territory of couple european countries))

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Valery Definitely. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we have so much more of distinct European cultures to refer to from our own culture, where China is just sort of “Chinese” culture. Obviously there’s just as diverse a range of cultures in China as in Europe, but from the outside it’s harder to have an affinity for one or the other. Easier to decide between French and Italian.

  2. Eugene:

    If your wife likes something Arabic, it is probably from an Abic country. Learn the dialect of that country.

  3. Naheda:

    In my opinion you’re best choice would be Egyptian Arabic. I’m from the Gulf area and our dialect is the closest to the Arabic in the media and news, but not quite the same. However, everybody understand Egyptian Arabic because all the Arabic movies and majority of TV series, shows and songs are Egyptian and they are shown all over the Middle East. The second reason for learning it is: it is the easiest one to learn. If people heard you speaking Egyptian Arabic will try and speak back the same. Just an advice, nobody understands Maghrebi or Sudanese or any of those languages.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Naheda I’m kind of back and forth between Egyptian and Levantine. Do you know how intelligible Egyptian Arabic is to those from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria?

  4. adeel:

    Learn the classical arabic. It will give u excess to not only thier literature but also everyone not only understands regards it is as most educated ones language in arabic

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @adeel But will I be able to speak to people in normal situations, or only literature professors and scholarly types?

  5. Jakob Gibbons:

    Aaaahhhh yes, I’ve just recently had this exact same debate with myself! I’m just about ready to start on a new language and am itching to jump into ‘Arabic’, but so many details and decisions!

    I’ve recently read that Levantine Arabic is sort of considered the ‘sexiest’ or ‘trendiest’ dialect, and Lebanon particularly seems like such a beautifully intriguing (and super relevant) country and set of cultures to visit and explore. But then most of the rest of the Levant is not super tourist friendly right now (okay, Lebanon also maybe not so smart), so I wonder how practical it is in travel terms.

    I’m also thinking maybe Egyptian Arabic. If there are a lot of movies and TV shows available in the dialect then that means lots of learning material right? And a lot of the other commenters here seem to agree it’s the most widely understood… Keep us posted on your (in)decision, I’m super curious!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Jakob Gibbons Those are the two I’m vacillating between as well. Levantine seems more useful in general, but not so much for traveling at the moment (I’m really bummed I didn’t get to visit Syria before all this went down. Here’s to hoping things stabilize in the near future :-/ ). So maybe Egyptian is best? At least then you can watch TV shows, which is a big resource for me learning any language. Helps with basic colloquial comprehension.

  6. Linda Nicola:

    You really only have two choices offered. Only Standard and Egyptian is found in language courses.

    This will allow you to read the news and see films.

    I’ve been trying for years to get something on learning Palestinian Arabic. No dice.

    Ever hear the ‘tomato’ story? During the Lebanese civil war, there were often road blocks. A guard would hold up a tomato and ask “What is this?”

    Depending on how you answered (which Arabic used), you would be let through or jailed.

    If I remember correctly, it was the choice between ‘Bandura’ and ‘banaDura.’

  7. Ahmed:

    You make them look like very different languages, which is not really the case.
    I recommend that you start with the official language and then jumping around to dialects would be much easier. Sentence rules are the same, many of the words are the same, you will only have to deal with the differences. Also, no not all the media, movies and tv shows are in Egyptian, that’s the sort of thing only an egyption will tell you. North Africans like morrocons and Tunisians tend to add a lot of French on their language and speak quickly, so yeah, you won’t be understood by most other Arabs if you used it.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Ahmed Fair enough! I think I’ll start with MSA and go from there.

  8. Nate:

    I also think it’s good to start with MSA and then work on a dialect or two after that. I started with MSA in university to get a good foundation and now I study independently while learning the gulf dialect from a good book I found and help from some Saudi friends. It’s difficult for sure, but with having many different resources makes it easier. If you’re interested in Gulf Arabic I recommend “colloquial Arabic of the gulf” by Clive Holes. It is however written with Latin characters though but it’s very accurate

  9. Mike Davidson:

    I am very happy you created this “blog” site.
    I am in the process of learning MA Arabic from Living Languages and combination of Byki and various texts
    and Pimsleur. “Egyptian Arabic. and anything I can dig up on the inet I believe that according to answers here and other opinion sources starting with MA. would before a good base etc. and then on to Egyptian dialect language would be a good course to navigate for my needs!

  10. Roman:

    I believe it’s different with Chinese.
    Indeed there a many unintelligible dialects, however, Chinese government actively pushes the Mandarin. Modern movies are made in Mandarin and, I believe more and more people will understand and speak it properly.
    They have a unity which Arabic world will not have for a long time.

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