There are a lot of Arabic-speaking countries each with its own variety of an Arabic dialect with a Modern Standard Arabic (MSA or "Fusha") being the language of the media and official speech, and Classical Arabic being the language of the Quran.

Would I be understood and is it normal to speak Modern Standard Arabic in the Arabic-speaking countries or do I need to study the dialect of the country where I am traveling to? Is the situation different for North African countries vs countries of the Gulf?

  • Would you be able to understand them when they answer you in the local version of the language? If you are not flexible in understanding you may need to study much more than when you are. – Willeke Dec 12 '18 at 20:27
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    AFAIK reasonally educated Arabs know fusha - it's weird to talk like that but they can understand and reply in fusha. This is what one of my Arab friends say; I don't speak Arabic. – xuq01 Dec 12 '18 at 21:29

The first thing to be aware of is, while you can use Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) / Fusha (pron. 'foos-ha') to be understood, unless you also learn some local Amiyah (colloquial dialect) vocab and pronunciation, you usually won't understand what anyone says in reply:

  • As MastaBaba says, MSA is widely known across the Arab world because it's taught in schools, used in news reports and books, etc. So you can speak in MSA across the Arab world, and most somewhat educated or cosmopolitan people will understand. (Of course, these are also the same people most likely to know a little English, especially younger people)
  • However, no-one really speaks MSA, so the person you're talking to probably won't respond in MSA. Imagine you're a Texan and a Japanese tourist asks you a question in the kind of English used by a 1950s BBC newsreader or scientific paper. You'd probably understand them, but you'd find it very difficult and unnatural to phrase your response the same way.
  • Even more so with MSA because it's a different (albeit overlapping) language many people have used little since school. Many Arab students take private lessons in fusha before starting university, for example.
  • So, there is the common problem many students of MSA have:
    • You ask, in perfect MSA, the equivalent of "Pardon me good sir, may one be so kind as to orient my good self toward the omnibus which shall proximately grace the parochial aerodrome?".
    • They take a moment to realise you are looking for the bus to the airport.
    • They respond in the local dialect, which is how they normally talk. To you, it sounds like "Gang richt bygae th' muckle howf, 'n' tak' th' yin seven five fur Milgavnie" (thanks, English to Scottish Translator!).
    • You don't have a clue what that means, but they expect you to understand. After all, you just spoke in classy, educated-sounding formal Arabic!

To quote the article Why You Shouldn’t Learn Modern Standard Arabic Before A Dialect on talkinarabic.com, which is worth reading in full:

Learn Modern Standard Arabic to be widely understood but don't expect to understand anyone, or for your conversations not to be completely awkward.

...here in Egypt I often encounter Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis who 'Egyptianize' their speech somewhat while they're living here to get by. What you don't see however are people walking around speaking Modern Standard Arabic to one another as a bridge language.

It's possible that author is slightly biased because some knowledge of Egyptian Arabic is widespread due to the popularity of Egyptian films and TV. Egyptian Arabic is certainly closer to a lingua franca than MSA or any other branch - like how most English speakers can Americanise their colloquial speech much more easily than they could Shakespearianise it.

I don't completely agree with their conclusion that you absolutely shouldn't learn MSA first, because learning MSA is a strong head start towards learning any Arabic dialect. You get difficult things in your belt like the alphabet, the word construction from roots, and a lot of core vocab that will be widely understood.

I suppose it's comparable to a Japanese person who has never studied a European language and hasn't decided which European country to visit, deciding to learn Latin first (if Latin was still widely taught in schools and used in academia etc). Not advisable if they don't have a lot of time and an enjoyment of learning languages, but if they do have those things, they'll have a head start when they do decide, and whatever European language(s) they then study will be easier.

However, MSA / Fusha is harder to learn than colloquial / Amiyah. The grammar is more complicated and less forgiving (like Latin...) - small grammatical mistakes completely change the meaning of sentences, while in most forms of Amiyah, the grammar is looser, more flexible, and more tolerant of mistakes.

Don't think any form of Amiyah is easy, however: any branch of Amiyah (Egyptian, Gulf, Levantine, Tunisian, Moroccan) is still much harder to learn for an English speaker than another European language, particularly pronunciation and comprehension (e.g. breaking down the components of words is very different). You'll also have the problem that good quality learning resources are very hard to find (with the possible exception of Egyptian Arabic).

But if you learn one, or MSA, you'll have strong head start on all the others.

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    Wow, this is a masterpiece and answers a ton of follow-up questions I had left. Shukran lak jazilan! – alecxe Dec 16 '18 at 15:38

For lack of commenting rights, but merely intended as a comment to user568458's most excellent answer:

What he describes (first, you saying something in MSA, then receiving an answer in the local dialect) can sure happen a lot. To me, it happened much more often that first I got a blank stare, then a loud laugh, then the next thing I know, the person I was trying to talk to calls their friends while I'm still wondering whether I was being laughed at. Then the next think you know you're being paraded around as the guy from Germany (Soccer! Mercedes! BMW!) who speaks "better Arabic than you guys do".

If I was allowed one wish, it would be to travel back in time to the first day of my Bachelor's in Arabic Studies and to have the strength to ditch all those Professors' advice and start with a dialect (preferably Syrian Arabic and more precisely the one spoken in and around Damascus). Syrian Arabic specifically because of all the native speakers of it that are now in Europe but also because there's an excellent textbook for it now (at least in German - please do tell if you know of a good English one).

Teaching any but the most skilled, talented, and driven students of Arabic the high language first can only serve to hamper their progress permanently and profoundly. Personally, I've gotten better at some of the dialects since, but as soon as the situation gets challenging socially or emotionally, I will forever fall back into MSA patterns - often preventing the communication as such from succeeding. Either because people start drifting off-topic, instead making the language itself the new topic again (which takes a lot of energy to reverse and keep it so) or, much worse, because people start feeling talked-down to.

On top of all that, unless you learn to understand at least some of the (often undocumented) grammar, vocabulary, melody and syntax of your conversation partner's dialect, you'll be forced to keep guessing your way through what they're trying to tell you based on the words you do understand. This effect can be more or less pronounced.

For example:

  • At university (or wherever) you've learned to ask or be asked "أَيْنَ أَنْتَِ تَذْهَبِْ\ينَ؟" ("Where are you headed", ayna anta/anti tadhhab/eena, a phrase that once had me be the target of being made fun at for days by a General of one of the Gulf countries' domestic intelligence services, but that's a story for another day and place).
  • Now, a speaker of Syrian Arabic would say "وين تروح\ي؟" (weyn troo7/i) Depending on your aptitude to transfer existing knowledge to new patterns, because of your knowledge of the vocabulary رَاحَ\يَرُوحُ and أَيْنَ, as well as the possible phonetic behaviours of weak radicals, even without asking anyone, you might figure it out sooner rather than later.
  • Then you go to Morocco and a police officer at a border control station wants to know "فين غادي؟" (feen ghadi) and you might feel pretty panicky all of a sudden.

(At this point, though, also a remark on MastaBaba's answer: the "out-of-the-way" villages in, specifically, Oman (but not the south that he mentions, rather, the north) have, for a number of reasons, to me always been the places where I had the least trouble making use of that posh-sounding MSA, with people not only understanding without any strong feelings caused by the language itself, but also being able to respond in kind and without resorting to such high-level vocabulary that you in turn feel like you're out of your depth now.)

Of course everybody's different and also how much people are emotionally influenced by the communication situation they find themselves in differs a lot. In the experience of myself and some of my study colleagues, though, Arabic has a tendency to be heavier [than other non-indo-european languages] on the [natively indo-european] learner in terms of formation of new speaking (and thus, thinking) patterns and consequently, in terms of emotional workload while acquiring the language. To that extent I also disagree with user568458 in that having learned "one" (i.e. MSA) is a strong headstart in learning "the others" (i.e. one of the dialects).

In short: Yes! With the exception of the bare basics, go, learn a dialect (first)!

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    Thanks for your detailed answer. You shouldn't feel the need to mark the edits, especially since you've added them immediately after posting the answer. Feel free to integrate it into the main text of the answer if it reads better. – MJeffryes Jun 12 at 12:33
  • Thanks, moved it inside! – Rainer Verteidiger Jun 12 at 12:38
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    Well, that was a perfect story for my qah.wa break! Really enjoyed the breadth of the coverage of the topic. Thank you, my friend. This undoubtedly deserves an extra bounty reward. – alecxe Jun 12 at 12:43
  • Happy it was still of value, despite being half a year late to the party :-D – Rainer Verteidiger Jun 12 at 12:44
  • Also, now that you mentioned that General, my imagination goes wild :D Hope to hear that story some day. – alecxe Jun 12 at 12:44

Your question is rather broad, so in practice, YMMV.

Generally speaking, the more cosmopolitan the location, the more widely MSA is understood. If you're visiting a small rural town in the Atlas Mountains, say, or an out of the way village in southern Oman, you might have a harder time to be understood and to understand.

So, depending on what your reason for studying Arabic is, studying MSA might be the most practical, as it will be useful in a broad range of situations. If you plan on spending a particularly large amount of time in one particular (small?) region of the Arabic speaking world, it might be worthwhile to spend time on getting to know the local flavour of Arabic.

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    You are absolutely right, was not sure if I should have asked about a specific country but decided to let the question be generic. Good answer, thanks! – alecxe Dec 13 '18 at 14:06

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