Modern Standard Arabic And Classical Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is a variant of the Arabic language that is used mainly in writing and in formal situations. It developed out of Classical Arabic, but differs in a number of respects from it; especially in the field of vocabulary. Nevertheless, the two variants of Arabic, (MSA) and Classical, are very close and are considered by many Arabs to be essentially the same. Arabs refer to both as اللغة العربية الفصحى (al-lugha al-3arabiyya al-fuS-Ha) or simply as الفصحى (al-fuS-Ha) or فصحى (fus-Ha).
Modern Standard Arabic And The Arabic Dialects
The Modern Arabic language is characterized by diglossia: MSA is used in writing and in official or formal communication and the Arabic colloquial dialects are used in everyday life. The dialects can differ drastically from Modern Standard Arabic and vary widely from one country to another. In all Arab countries, the national language is composed of various local dialects more or less distant from the Modern Standard Arabic.
However, with rising levels of education and modernization of lifestyles, the gap between the written standard and spoken vernaculars tends to decrease. Given the reality of linguistic exchange, there is no watertight separation between written Arabic and spoken Arabic, but a continuum dominated by mixed forms. Arabic speakers combine to varying degrees depending on the context elements unique to their colloquial dialect and others borrowed from the written language.
Generally speaking, the colloquial Arabic dialects are not written and Modern Standard Arabic is used instead. However, of late, more and more colloquial dialects are represented in e.g. newspaper interviews, comic strips and dialogues in novels.
Dialect Or Modern Standard Arabic – What Should You Learn?
Many Arabic learners are surprised by the fact that just learning e.g. Egyptian Arabic will not allow them to understand media from other Arab countries or read Arabic books. Likewise, only knowing Modern Standard Arabic without at least some knowledge of the Arabic dialects will make it difficult to communicate with every Arab.
As a rule of thumb, every Arab understands Modern Standard Arabic, due to its importance as the language used in the media and in religious and state education. The Arabic learner who acquires a sound foundation in MSA will have no problem making himself understood anywhere in the Arab world. However, many Arabs only have a passive knowledge of MSA and will not be able to answer you in MSA, replying instead in their own dialect.
Learning an Arabic dialect is much easier with a thorough knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic, as many dialect words and expressions derive from Classical Arabic. Of course, the reverse also holds true. However, just learning a particular dialect will not allow you to appreciate much of the Arab media and Arabic literature. Nor will it allow you to communicate fully with Arabs from other countries.
My advice is to learn both Modern Standard Arabic and at least one dialect. After mastering both, you are almost at the level of native Arabic speakers who also know at least their own dialect and some degree of MSA.
A good place to start learning MSA would be with the Arabic script.