Article | What is colloquial Arabic?

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Potential students of Arabic will naturally ask themselves: “Why devote so much time to the colloquial language? And what is it anyway – some kind of slang?” Perhaps they will say to themselves, “I want to learn proper Arabic, not something that’s spoken in the street!” This obliges us to describe the special dual nature of the Arabic language.

Colloquial Arabic is the everyday language spoken by all Arabs all the time – in the home, at work, out shopping, etc. It is different from written literary Arabic, which is used in books, newspapers and even in family letters, and from the official Arabic heard on the radio and TV and in public lectures and speeches. To help clarify this point: When two well-educated people are engaged in everyday conversation – not in front of the microphone or at an official symposium – they will speak colloquial Arabic. On the other hand, a child writing to his or her parents will do so in written / literary (i.e., non-colloquial) Arabic.

The written and colloquial forms of Arabic are two different varieties of the same language. One could almost say that they are two different languages. If you want to talk to Arabs, it’s a good idea to learn the spoken – colloquial – form as a separate language with its own individual characteristics. Colloquial Arabic should never be regarded as a “sloppy” or “corrupt” form of the written language that can be improvised at random by leaving off a few word endings. Nonetheless, written and colloquial Arabic do have a great deal in common, including a large shared vocabulary. The degree of kinship becomes clearer the more one learns of both. At first glance, however, it is the differences that are more apparent, and these include:

– Everyday words in the spoken language which don’t exist in the written version, and vice versa.
– Words common to both languages, but pronounced differently in each.
– Differences in the conjugation of the verb.
– Differing sentence structures and rules of pronunciation.

Colloquial Arabic is nonetheless influenced by literary Arabic (this will be explained in Book 2), and some people speak a mixture of the two, especially when discussing abstract, technical or official topics, or in television interviews, when they want to adopt a more formal tone and use a higher register of language. This varies from one person to another, and some highly educated people will stick to colloquial speech throughout an interview, or start off with a couple of sentences in the literary language before switching to colloquial.

This is why it is important for you to begin by thoroughly learning colloquial Arabic as it is used in everyday conversation between native speakers. In Books 3 and 4 we shall use recordings from radio and television to help you make the acquaintance of what is known as “educated Arabic,” which is a combination of literary and colloquial.