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Is Colloquial Arabic Better Than Modern Standard Arabic?

posted on: Sep 28, 2022

Photo: How are you in Arabic / Credit: Mariam Alyakoob

By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer

Given the declining use and literacy rates of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), typically referred to as formal Arabic, some critics believe that focusing on teaching dialects of Arabic are more efficient in maintaining the language, while others feel that preserving MSA is essential in preserving the overall Arabic culture. 

What is the difference between Quranic, MSA, and Colloquial Arabic 

Photo: Arabic Practice / Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Typically the Arabic language has three different categories: Quranic/Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Dialect/Colloquial Arabic.

Quranic Arabic, or Classical Arabic, is the language used within the Quran, and is typically the version of Arabic that connects many Muslims togethers, whether they are Arab or Non-Arab.

Modern Standard Arabic or MSA, is less formal than Quranic Arabic and is used in written forms of Arabic such as in school books or within the Media. MSA is also the official language of over 20 countries, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Lastly, Colloquial/Dialect Arabic is spoken in everyday communication, and typically not within an academic or religious context. Depending on the country and region, Colloquial Arabic is spoken in different variations, with five major dialects being: Egyptian, Gulf, Iraqi, Levantine, and North African. But realistically, there are over 20 dialects that are spoken within the Arab World, and Arabs can sometimes differentiate one another based on the way they speak. For example, in MSA Arabic the “J”  sound is typically used while this is replaced with a “Y” sound in the Kuwaiti dialect, and a “G” sound in the Egyptian dialect. Both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and colloquial Arabic have their own strengths and weaknesses. MSA is the formal language of the Arab world, while colloquial Arabic is the spoken language of the Arab world. MSA is more difficult to learn but is necessary for serious engagement with Arab culture, academia, or business fusha arabic classes will give you a deeper understanding of colloquial Arabic, make you a more well-rounded Arabic speaker, and show your respect for Arab culture.

How has the Arabic Language been impacted by Globalization

Photo: Globalization Sign / Credit: Pix4free

James Griffiths, writer of CNN article The internet threatened to speed up the death of endangered languages. Could it save them instead?, refers to the expansion of globalization and technology, as a potential endangerment to worldwide language diversity, and we can see the effect it has had on the Arab world as well. 

According to Griffiths, globalization has negative effects on language diversity because it is much easier to communicate using a small number of larger languages as opposed to a large number of smaller languages. This can be attributed to how colonialism has impacted globalization, given that the most widely spoken languages originated from the countries that had the most influence when colonialism was at its height.

 According to the Anthropology book, A Toolkit for a Global Age, these influential languages include English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and Russian. This allows anthropologists to categorize certain languages as globalized languages, in which these dominant languages become geographically widespread to areas they had not originated from. These dominant languages are sometimes considered prestige languages, where the ability to speak that language is associated with wealth, education, and power.

We can see the prominence of English as a prestige language based on its higher influence on oil rich Gulf countries in comparison to other Arab countries. According to a 2015 Arab Youth Survey, which gathered data from 35,000 Arabs aged 18 to 24, one third of them spoke English more than Arabic on a daily basis. And the percentage from GCC countries was drastically higher at 56%, in comparison to non GCC countries at 24%.

Within Swar Shuaib, a famous Kuwaiti comedy show, a 2016 episode revolves around code switching between English and Arabic. The host of the show, Shuaib, walks around a mall asking children to list the name of the animal he has a picture of. The majority could immediately name it in English, while they struggled to come up with the name in Arabic. 

Video: Swar Shuaib Language Segment / Link:

What is Arabizi?

Photo: Writing in Arabizi / Credit: Mariam Alyakoob

Many view English as a threat to preserving fluency when using Modern Standard Arabic given its position as a dominant language. The English language also typically dominates social media, which many fear will eliminate the ability of the younger Arab generation to think and create in Arabic.

We can see how English has dominated aspects of the Arabic language through the increased use of Arabizi within younger Arab generations. According to Mustafa Taha

, professor at the American University of Sharjah, “Arabizi is a mixture of Arabic and English languages, in which Arabic words are written using English letters”. Taha states that with new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), it is much easier to type in English given that within the Arabic keyboard exists more letters, making it more time consuming to type in Arabic.

Arguments Pro Teaching Dialect 

Video: Let it Go Translated in Arabic / Link:

With many languages being threatened by the powerful influence of the English language, many feel that MSA is undermining Arabs ability to maintain the Arabic language as a whole. 

One argument supporting the use of dialects comes from a debate amongst Arabic translators working on translating the song “Let it go” from the Disney movie Frozen. In the opinion of Egyptian translator, Zeinab Mobarak, she feels that using MSA in children’s movies is not the best move. Mobarak had been originally asked to translate Disney movies to the Egyptian dialect, which was very popular amongst Arab audiences, but eventually in 2012, Disney wanted to dub everything in MSA instead so that the language was standardized across the Middle East. 

Mobarak states that MSA is a “read only” language and that “​​having animated characters speak in it is just not normal. Add to that the fact that ethnic diversity is totally lost in film characters, since there is no ethnic dialect in MSA”.

Arab audiences ended up launching a campaign demanding that Disney movies be translated into Egyptian Arabic using the #Disney_must_return_Egyptian and creating a petition with over 2,000 signatures supporting this movement. After ten years, in 2022 Disney decided to offer dubbing in both colloquial dialects as well as Modern Standard Arabic, delighting many Arab audiences. 

Another argument is brought forward by John Myhill, who is a professor of English Language and Literature. Myhill states that there is a literacy problem within Arab countries, having an average literacy ranking of 72 from the 182 countries listed. This is a shock given that  there is funding available for supporting education, which means that literacy rates should be much higher. 

Myhill states that this is due in large part to the difference between Arabic dialects, that are spoken daily, and Modern Standard Arabic, which has been taught in school. He compares MSA as feeling like a completely different language to the colloquial Arabic, making it much harder for Arabs to truly understand, stating “mass of evidence from languages around the world supports the idea that children learn to read most efficiently when the language of their primary schooling is as close as possible to their native dialect”. Myhill believes that this is a huge factor resulting in low literacy rates amongst Arabs. 

Diglossia in Arabic

Photo: Glossary of Linguistics Terms / Credit: SIL International

Hossam Abouzhar, founder of The Living Arabic Project, mirrors Myhill’s opinion. Abouzhar states that learning and reading in Arabic has become an unpleasant learning experience, particularly for children who are expected to understand a language they are unfamiliar with. 

This is largely due to the impact of Arabic diglossia. Abouzhar defines diglossia as “​​a situation in which two or more varieties of a language are shoved together through social circumstances; for Arabic, there are numerous spoken dialects that exist side by side with the formal”. Within diglossia, the language variations are assigned a H (high) or L (low) variety. H variations are usually used in more formal settings, while L varieties are typically used in informal or day to day conversations. H variations also have many grammatical rules while L variations tend to lack established grammatical rules. 

Diglossia presents a confusing situation, given that H varieties are not familiarized in early life when language is developing yet is held at a very prestigious standing in comparison to L varieties, which speakers have been accustomed to in the first few years of life. In many cases, the L varieties are not regarded as real languages, which has been the case with colloquial Arabic, while the H varieties are regarded as the “true” language, which has been the case for Modern Standard and Quranic Arabic. In many cases, H varieties are viewed as superior due to its connection with religion, as is the case with Quranic Arabic. Overall, these variations tend to create weakness in language learning and obtaining fluency. 

Abouzhar states that Modern Standard Arabic is not a truly living language given that it is not spoken fluently by Arabs, yet it is held to an incredibly high standard and is seen as being needed to preserve.


There is definitely a concern when it comes down to literary rates in Arab countries, and it is linked to the high variation between colloquial Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. Many critics believe that it may be best to switch from Modern Standard Arabic to colloquial Arabic, but this opinion has received much backlash from MSA supporters. In conclusion, the Arabic language is incredibly beautiful whether it is a specific dialect or whether it is MSA or Quranic Arabic.

What do you think? Are you pro Dialect or pro MSA?

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