ARABIC ranks sixth in the world’s league table of lan­guages, with an esti­mated 225 mil­lion native speak­ers. As the lan­guage of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used through­out the Mus­lim world. It belongs to the Semitic group of lan­guages which also includes Hebrew and Amharic, the main lan­guage of Ethiopia.

There are many Ara­bic dialects. Clas­si­cal Ara­bic – the lan­guage of the Qur’an – was orig­i­nally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Ara­bia. An adapted form of this, known as Mod­ern Stan­dard Ara­bic, is used in books, news­pa­pers, on tele­vi­sion and radio, in the mosques, and in con­ver­sa­tion between edu­cated Arabs from dif­fer­ent coun­tries (for exam­ple at inter­na­tional conferences).

Local dialects vary, and a Moroc­can might have dif­fi­culty under­stand­ing an Iraqi, even though they speak the same language.

PEOPLE learn Ara­bic for a vari­ety of rea­sons: for work, for travel, for reli­gious pur­poses, because of mar­riage or friend­ship with an Arab, or sim­ply as a hobby. The moti­va­tion to some extent deter­mines the most appro­pri­ate learn­ing method.

What­ever your motive, we sug­gest you try to learn a lit­tle Ara­bic at home before com­mit­ting your­self to more seri­ous (and pos­si­bly expen­sive) study of it. At the very least, this will give you an idea of what’s involved and give you extra con­fi­dence dur­ing the early stages of any course you may take later.

The first thing to decide is whether you want to learn standard/classical Ara­bic or a col­lo­quial dialect.

Unless your inter­est is con­fined to one par­tic­u­lar coun­try, the safest option is to learn a ver­sion of the clas­si­cal lan­guage known as Mod­ern Stan­dard Ara­bic. This is what is used in books, news­pa­pers, radio and tele­vi­sion news pro­grams, polit­i­cal speeches, etc.

Using stan­dard Ara­bic in every­day con­ver­sa­tion sounds a bit for­mal to Arab ears, but at least you can be sure of being under­stood by edu­cated Arabs any­where in the Mid­dle East. It may be more dif­fi­cult to under­stand what they say to you, unless they make the effort to speak more for­mally than usual. Hav­ing learnt some stan­dard Ara­bic, how­ever, it is rel­a­tively easy to adapt to a local dialect later.

Among the dialects, Egypt­ian and Lev­an­tine (spo­ken by Lebanese, Syr­i­ans, Jor­da­ni­ans and Pales­tini­ans) are the most widely under­stood out­side their spe­cific area. Col­lo­quial Moroc­can, on the other hand, is of lit­tle use out­side the Maghreb.

If you are plan­ning to learn Ara­bic because of an inter­est in Islam, stan­dard Ara­bic is prefer­able to a col­lo­quial dialect. But stan­dard Ara­bic, on its own, is unlikely to meet all your needs. A spe­cific course in Qur’anic Ara­bic would be more suit­able, per­haps in con­junc­tion with stan­dard Arabic.