Monday, October 24, 2005

The Amiyya vs. Fusha Debate is on


The debate is on. What do you think about the teaching and learning of colloquial Arabic vs. Modern Standard Arabic? When should a student learn colloquial? There are some universities in the US that teach both concurrently - though they are the exception. Most universities teach only Fusha for the first 2 years at least.

I am in the minority. I think, for reasons I shall post sometime, that students ought to learn colloquial and MSA at the same time. How about you? I have asked many students and many professors. This is "the" question in US Arabic academia. Let me know your thoughts.



At 01:59, Anonymous Elena said...

You need both - but trying to learn both at the same time is difficult. I have started with MSA some years ago, and found its grammar absolutely fascinating. Despite some progress it is difficult to learn how to hold a proper conversation. I tried to practice my acquired skills with a goldsmith in Aleppo - only to be told "ah yes, you speak like those foreign diplomats". However, learning the [Syrian] dialect is difficult without a native speaker, especially since the exact spelling of dialect words is not always easy. Best would be to spend some time in the country.

At 00:39, Blogger Imran Nomani said...


Yes, you need both in order for you to find what you've learnt useful! Fusha is great for understanding Arabic literature and general media articles.

I am going to Syria this December for six weeks to learn how to speak Arabic; whether this will entail picking up Ammiyah or using my existing fusha skills is yet to be seen.

I personally think learning fusha first to familiarise yourself with grammar and deep knowledge of syntax e.t.c is best as it gives you a great grounding to learn anything afterwards. I think I would have found it too confusing to learn both at the same time ...

At 00:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learning both is more challenging and helps you to put fusha in a real perspective.It's correct to be aware since the beginning of the relations between standard and colloquials and the switching from one to another. Of course this makes a sense if you have the chance to spend some years full immersed in a specific country.
Ciao ! Elisabetta

At 03:03, Blogger Gary B said...

I believe everybody is in agreement in saying that both are needed but having said that I am of the belief that MSA is a necessary foundation before learning a dialect.

I don't think there is any problem learning some dialect while studying MSA, but I'm hesitant to recommend studying both simultaneously - At least, not until one has a firm grasp of MSA.

I think a bigger debate than that of MSA versus Dialect is that of which dialect should one choose!?!

BTW, for those of you that mentioned an interest in Syrian dialect, please check out my link to a very good, and free, Syrian dialect course.

Also, if you are interested in Egyptian dialect, the link to the MSA Vocab Clinic should also take you to an Egyptian Vocab Clinic option. This isn't free software, but the MSA software I purchased is good. You can download a trial version to check it out first.

At 19:13, Blogger Aboo Imraan said...


I will have to disagree with Gary B, for those of us who are practising sunee/salafee muslims then al-Fushaa is sufficient enough.

Many of the brothers who studied in the Islamic Universities in Saudi or even in Dar-ul-Hadeeth in Dimaaj (a village in Sa'dah, Yemen), got along just fine without having to learn any "Ammiyyah".

Learning and speaking al-Fushaa sets you apart from other Arabic speakers and even the Arabs view you differently when you speak to them in the language of the Quraan.

C'mon I havent met one Arab who insisted that I use mush instead of laysa, or hadhirtak instead of anta.

Aboo Imraan al-Mekseekee

At 14:57, Blogger nuun said...

Which 'amiyya should we learn? The beauty of the Arabic language is lost in any dialect.

'amiyya shouldn't be taught in classes and schools. You learn 'amiyya when you live with the people who speak it.

There is a very new trend in the Arab countries among highly educated people to speak "Fuss.Ha" as a spoken language instead of 'amiyya.

Learn and speak "Fus.Ha". You will be understood anywhere in the Arab world, but your "Syrian" will not be understood outside Syria unless you speak like a native.

At 13:24, Blogger bowlby said...

It is a shame to the Ammiya--Fusha debate so one-sided and poorly understood. Most people that advocate fusha do so because of an uninformed premise that assumes there is in fact a great difference between the Arabic spoken among Arabs and the language of the media and written communication. People use the religious and political ideologies to advocate fuhsa as the "correct" or useful Arabic and the only Arabic that is understood everywhere. Pan-Arab nationalism tells us to learn fusha because it binds Arabs together with a common language, a reaction to Western colonialism perhaps and the preceived (or in fact real) attempt of the West to divide the Arab people. Religious followers tell us to learn fuhsa because it is the language of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammad. Fusha is beautiful, the Koran is beyond description, but when we're talking about achieveing fluency in Arabic, the most common approach is all wrong (in my opinion of course).

First, ammiya (roughly "slang") is an inaccurate term that innsults regional and national varieties of Arabic. I prefer the term lehge (dialect) or mahke (spoken). These are varieties that are used by all Arabs and they are ALWAYS the natural, first language of Arabic speakers - in other words, they learn it actively. Fusha is learned at a later age (usually 10 years or so) and is never active, always passive. Why as a foreigner should I set out immediately to master fusha, a passive language for native Arabs, and then attempt to take a rich and complex passive language and attempt to make it active. Why should I try to become better than native speakers (an impossible task, unless you dedicate years?) for the get-go when they in fact don't learn it until 10 years old? I advocate learning spoken Arabic intensively for up to six months and to become fluent in amiyya, making it a natural acquistion and beginning to understand Arabic and develop a intuitive feeling for the language. Only then will you really own it, only then will it truly be yours. Then move to fusha, yes. It is a beautiful and rich langauge and once your amiyya is fluent, a transition to fusha will be smooth.

As for what Arabic to learn, I recommend Syrian. No matter what anyone tells you, these dialects are understood. Egyptians can communicate with Syrians/Lebanese/Palestinians with almost no trouble at all. Syrian programs and Egyptian movies are seen throughout the Arab world and people understand it. You will rarely find programs completely in fusha - most often they use a "shared Arabic", a mix of the spoken and the written. I have learned Syrian Arabic and had conversations in amiyya with Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Saudis and Yemenis with ease. The rest I have yet to meet.

My teacher in Damascus writes about this more on his website:

I have been studying Arabic (Syrian spoken) for three months now and I have surpassed the speaking abilities of all the foreigners I know, most of which have studied Arabic for two to three years. I get yelled at all the time about fusha, people call me crazy, but when it comes down to it: I speak Arabic, I conduct my entire life in Arabic and they don't. That's the shame.

At 13:29, Blogger abu_steif said...

I agree that you need both dialect and MSA. That said, I take the completely opposite position when it comes to teaching Arabic. I think the focus should be on dialect for at least the first year if not the first two. Students should be taught the alphabet and expected to use it, but the overwhelming focus should be on spoken Arabic until students begin to feel somewhat comfortable speaking. Only then should MSA be introduced at a more serious level. This will help students keep the two separate. There's also the additional benefit of learning the two in the same order that the Arabs do. You begin to see Arabic in the same framework that they do.

I've been involved in Arabic for 7 years now, and I have yet to meet a student that learned exclusively MSA first that was able to learn the dialect well. They simply get too frustrated and end up using MSA as a crutch. Even worse, they end up using MSA words in their dialect, and since no one corrects them, they think it's an acceptable word in dialect. They simply never have the same opportunity to learn dialect that others do because no one will correct them and say "hey, you should say this slang word instead of that MSA word". MSA is great in that you can be understood just about anywhere, but it can also become an obstacle to learning. I'm not saying it's impossible to learn dialect well after learning MSA well first, but it would require much more time sitting down with a native that was willing to help you purge your speech of "classicisms".

As for Arabic losing its beauty in the dialects, I disagree. Dialect can be very beautiful, but Arabs have been brought up to believe that it's just a corrupted version of Fusha. Few Arabs find beauty in dialect. It's true that you don't find lots of great poetry or literature in dialect, but that's because no one accepts it. It's not socially acceptable to write in dialect. If everyone started writing in dialect from now on, people would find beautiful ways of saying things, even in dialect.

If you study the patterns of Arab migration and dialect dispersion, you come to realize that the Arabic dialects are not corrupted versions of MSA, but rather are the descendents of what were contemporary dialects of Arabic at the time of the Arab conquests. Different tribes spoke different dialects of Arabic, and the dialects that exist now are their descendents, not corrupted versions of MSA. Not everyone was from the Qureish tribe, and not everyone spoke like the Qureish.

I understand aboo imran's viewpoint, and I agree to some extent, but for the other 75% of Arabic students in the United States that have no religious connection to Arabic or Islam, dialect is simply more practical. While you can get along with MSA just fine, there are things you miss. People do view you differently when you speak to them in the language of the Quran, but I have been there when the foreigners speaking MSA leave, and the Arabs laughed at them behind their back. I'm speaking of Muslims and Christians alike laughing at them, and I got to see them do it because they considered me "one of them" because I spoke dialect.

At 20:30, Blogger ratbert said...

this kind of debate is not limited to arabic learning. every language has, to some extent, a gap between standard and colloquial english. try sticking a foreign phd student at an american university in a kitchen in a restaurant with american teenagers.

of course the more angles you get on a language, the better -- though of course you are better off with a "guide" to situate the learner and prioritize.

At 14:26, Blogger Kristen said...

Even though I complain in class about learning Egyptian colloquial, I think it's definitely important to learn fusha along with a dialect. My belief is that no average person can become proficient in a language without living in a place where s/he is immersed in the language, and one can't live in an Arabic speaking country and learn without speaking a dialect. The variety of dialects is a problem because you never know where you'll decide to go (unless your mind is set), but that's not a problem that can be changed. I will admit to wishing, however, that fusha was the only part of Arabic used, in writing or speech!

The complaint I have in my own class is that we are made to write and read Egyptian on tests. I understand why it must be written in order to learn vocabular and practice reading dialogues out loud, but there is no need for writing it in homework and tests, in my opinion. Any testing should be done orally. Also, I find myself getting vocab and conjugations for fusha and Egpytian mixed up. I'd like them to be taught side by side almost, so that I can clearly see conjugations for one juxtaposed to another.

I do feel both should be taught, but the way they are taught (which to many students feels like two completely different languages) needs to be reconsidered.

At 10:57, Blogger D. Zonzerigue said...

What's a passionate debate! I'm studying arabic and I don't know why I should learn a dialect at the moment: The arabic that is official language of the United Nations is MSA; I'm muslim and the arabic of the Qoran is what I'm interested in. MSA is the closest to it. With the MSA I can also read the newspapers. In my environment, I meet with people from Maghreb, Middle East... and they all seem to speak a diffent arabic (totaly confusing for a learner). And most of them can talk if not MSA, English or French with me. Also I'm so confused by the debate which is often biased (e.g. what a good reason for me to learn Syrian and not Tunisian if I'm more interest in Tunisia) that I don't bother to learn any dialect until I decide to go to one of the arabic countries for a long period of time. Once there I'll use my MSA at first (I'm not affraid of locals laughing at me because they know nothing of my own mother tongue! I don't want to pretend to be an Arab!) and then learn the local dialect. Juste another perpective from a person not in the US and not in an arabic country but interested in the arabic language.

At 09:03, Blogger barujah said...

Now one question: How does a Morrocan communicate with an Iraqi in Arabic? Do they speak in English or French that is if they both know those foreign languages. Or do they use Syran or Egyptian and what would they use a third Arabic language? At any rate I would be interested in knowing the answer.

At 21:32, Blogger Julia said...

My teacher taught them concurrently in Arabic 101 and it really stressed me out--I think they should both be taught, but one at a time!

At 00:28, Blogger brett said...

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At 05:32, Blogger Mason said...

Fus7a is never a language that you will need to speak. It is only a language that u will need to learn to read and only understand. I grew up speaking algerian arabic and egyptian arabic from my parents, but i never learned fus7a. When i watch arabic tv, fus7a is spoken alot and i understand it. when its written, it often looks like dialect written, but with a slightly different vocabulary (3aayez vs yeriid vs yebgha vs me7taaj) all are fus7a words but can be seen as slang because of the constant use in colloquial arabic. to me fus7a and dialect are the same, but u will never see me speaking in cases, or using the subjunctive.. just not used anymore...

At 05:38, Blogger Mason said...

In addition, if there is a moroccan speaking to an iraqi, usually they both switch their speech to as close to egyptian arabic as possible becuase using egyptian guarantees intelligibility. my best friend is iraqi, and before i could speak iraqi arabic, we used to speak exclusively egyptian. if youre iraqi and speaking to a saudi, usually you revert ur arabic to as close to emiraati arabic as possible. In the maghrib, usually people will try to speak as algerian as possible, but all maghribi dialects are mutually intelligible. one must also remeber that outside cairo, the egyptian arabic is VERY similar to maghribi arabic.

At 06:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm looking to learn arabic, preferably from syria. I'm looking for a good place that offers good full immersion program that teaches msa and other. Anyone know of any good place?

At 06:07, Blogger Ibnu Salih said...

Formal learning should focus on fusha, as a common language will bridge gaps and unite muslims. Learning dialects will only breed nationalism.

I used to be embarassed in the company of arabs because as a muslim who was striving hard to learn arabic,I could hardly understand any conversation amongst the arabs. I don't feel embarassed anymore because now I understand that arabs hardly use "the language of Islam" so it makes most of them just like any other race in the muslim world and not the absolute custodians of Islam as they once were. If you want to practise speaking fusha then do it amongst non-arabs and arabs with Islamic (as opposed to nationalist) identity. Fusha is language of Islam & muslims so true muslims will strive to master it and not waste time with dialects.


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