The Dialect Dilemma

مُعْضِلة

root: ع-ض-ل / noun / plural: مُعضلات or مَعاضِل / definition: dilemma


Imagine studying a language for years in a classroom. You can give presentations and write essays in that language (with moderate reliance on the dictionary), and you can read newspaper articles and understand the news (with, realistically, slightly more reliance on said dictionary).

Now imagine: after all those years, you’re listening to native speakers having a simple, everyday conversation and are forced to wonder what on earth you’ve been learning if you can’t decipher a single one of their sentences.

Well, I’m sure most Arabic students don’t have to stretch their imagination too far, because this—somewhat crushingly—is the reality when students of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) initially try to understand the colloquial (عاميّة).

Arabic dialects, to the Arabic student, at first, seem like a blur of baa’s and shoos (that’s ب and شو to clarify, not sheep and footwear) and a whole lot of words that sound remotely familiar yet frustratingly incomprehensible. And you’re left wondering why this “dialect” sounds like a completely different language!

Well, the fact that some Arabic dialects are completely mutually unintelligible does classify them, linguistically, as separate languages. And it’s no wonder when you consider the vast geographical distribution of Arabic-speaking populations and, hence, the different language contact situations and influences etc.

But let’s not delve too deep into the “dialects or languages” discussion, though.

Instead, let’s focus on the issue at hand, meaning my current issue which is: which dialect should I start learning?

I can’t remember at exactly which point that this pressing desire to learn a dialect was stirred up, but I do remember thinking recently how strange it was that I hadn’t given learning a dialect too much thought in the past.

On reflection, I assume it was primarily down to the fact that I hadn’t travelled anywhere in the Arab world since enrolling in university and hadn’t actually had any solid plans to do so. And considering I was only taught MSA at university, learning one form of Arabic really seemed like enough at the time.

But now, especially as I’ve been looking at different options for studying Arabic further (and possibly abroad), I’m really keen to at least get a basic understanding of a dialect. However, not knowing exactly where and what I’m going to study next year is what gives rise to this dialect dilemma.

Do I pick Egyptian Arabic? Levantine? Iraqi? Gulf? Should I wait until my plans are clearer before deciding? Should it depend on which one is closer to MSA? Are any of them significantly closer to MSA than the others?

If I’m basing my decision on which dialect will probably be most useful for me, I suppose I could rule out the Iraqi dialect for one, which narrows the selection down fractionally. Because although I thought the dialect just sounded beautiful when I first heard it, the idea of learning it was only a fleeting consideration.

(And, to be honest, a lot of that fleeting consideration was based on the fact that I, being Turkish Cypriot, was really quite excited to discover that Iraqi Arabic has many Turkish loanwords (…not that that would make learning the dialect any easier seeing as my Turkish skills have regressed to the level of a two-year-old’s).)

Anyway, as I’m trying to make the most of the books I own—and trying to resist the temptation to buy this book which has been sitting in my Amazon basket for ages—it makes sense for me to at least begin with one of the two dialects dealt with alongside MSA in Al-Kitaab which we used the first year of university. So that’s either Egyptian or Levantine.

The book is dominated by MSA but I’ve had a little flick through to look at the sections about colloquial and it seems like enough to get started.

I’m quite excited, actually, to be able to experience learning a language (well, dialect) from scratch again. I think the start of any language learning journey just evokes this somewhat childlike fascination, and it’s the only time on that journey when understanding just a single word in a whole conversation gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

What are your thoughts on the dialect dilemma? Do you think dialects should even be a concern if you’re not heading to a specific region in the immediate future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For my post next week, I really want to share an amazing Arabic podcast that I’ve been addicted to listening to, so make sure to subscribe so you’ll get an email notification for every new post!

!إلى اللقاء

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