If you want to learn Arabic or are just getting started, this is one of the first questions you will probably ask yourself. And I don’t blame you.
Arabic is usually considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, topped by only a few languages like Japanese in terms of difficulty.
Plus, it’s even harder (or so they say) if you are a native speaker of English or a romance language. Well, here is the answer to your question: Arabic is certainly not easy, but it’s not nearly as difficult as people seem to think.
And in this post, I will show you why.
In this article, I'll focus on Egyptian Arabic since that's the most widely spoken and popular dialect to learn. But don't worry – the main points we cover here are relevant no matter which Arabic dialect you are learning.
Egyptian Arabic Is Easier Than Standard Arabic
First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: Egyptian Arabic vs. Standard Arabic / Modern Standard Arabic / Fus7a (yes, spelled with a “7”). These two languages are most definitely not the same.
Standard Arabic is the older “original” language. It’s essentially the language that prophet Muhammad spoke, and is much more “formal” than Egyptian Arabic. Egyptian Arabic, however, is a dialect. It’s one of over 30 Arabic dialects in the world today (depending on how you define a “dialect”).
While Standard Arabic is beautiful, it’s not really useful if your goal is to speak with Egyptians. In fact, when I first spent some time in Cairo, it quickly became apparent that my three years of Fus7a weren’t going to get me far.
Standard Arabic is basically only used in for religious purposes, books, and official news programs. If you are speaking Arabic the way Arabs actually speak, you are speaking a dialect. Why do I bring this up?
Well, if you are really want to know if Egyptian Arabic is hard to learn, you have to know the differences between the dialect and Standard Arabic. And here’s the thing: for most people, Egyptian Arabic is substantially easier than Standard Arabic. That was certainly my experience, and the experience of many foreigners I knew in Cairo. Let’s move on to some specifics.
Arabic In General Isn’t Easy …But It’s Not Exactly Hard, Either
This is especially true if you are a native English speaker. And it’s true for both Standard Arabic and Arabic dialects. For one thing, the pronunciation is definitely different.
Your mouth needs to get used to making sounds that it never has before. While this is normal for any language, Arabic literally has sounds that European languages just don’t.
A good example is the somewhat guttural, back of the throat “3een” ع. This is a letter that took me (no joke) over two years to say correctly. Even now, I still haven’t mastered it.
Pronunciation is essential if you want people to actually understand what you are saying. Because of that, these different letters can be a real headache to somebody learning Egyptian Arabic. Still, give it enough time, and you DO in fact learn how to say these tricky Arabic letters.
Plus, there are only 6 or 7 letters that are really quite different than English. The others are quite easy!
The Arabic Writing System
One thing that also drives people away from learning Arabic dialects is the perceived complexity of the Arabic writing system. I say “perceived” because, well….it’s not difficult! It only looks that way.
The Arabic alphabet is made of 28 letters, and most of the letters slightly change their shape depending on where they are located in the word. This, like anything else, simply takes a bit of time to learn.
Of course, writing from right to left (a fun feature of Arabic) is a little weird if you’ve never done it before.
But even that becomes “normal” after about a week. Even if Arabic letters are somewhat hard to say….they’re quite easy to write!
Arabic Grammar Can Be Tricky
However, more than pronunciation or the alphabet itself, Arabic grammar can be a bit tricky.
This isn’t an opinion so much as a fact: Egyptian Arabic is different from most Indo-European languages. And that makes the grammar (at first glance) difficult.
Whether it’s the famous “dual” for two objects or the gender of nouns (which plenty of languages have), Arabic grammar can be quite hard for a lot of learners. Especially at the beginning.
One good example is the inconsistency of plurals. With English, you (almost always) add an “s” at the end of the singular noun. And BAM – you have a plural.
While Arabic (both Standard and dialects) has this simplicity with a lot of nouns – so many nouns are a completely different story. It’s the sort of thing where you just have to memorize singular and plural nouns together immediately. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to guess.
That said, grammar is definitely an area where Standard Arabic is much harder than Egyptian Arabic. Standard Arabic is particularly well-known for it’s verb conjugations. Ask any serious student of the language about this, and they will probably just roll their eyes.
Learning how to conjugate a verb in Arabic, and then adding an object, can take a while. But Egyptian Arabic is different. For whatever reason, the Egyptian dialect is much less strict regarding grammar rules. And for the rules that it DOES have…well, they’re easier!
This was my experience, and it was the experience of countless foreigners I knew in Egypt. The piles of Arabic grammar text books discouraged them….until Egyptian Arabic became a breath of fresh air.
Why Grammar Isn't Important
This isn’t to say that Egyptian Arabic grammar is easy. Just much more manageable than Standard. Plus, I just have to say it: grammar just really isn’t that important. Yeah, I said it. Hear me out.
What I mean isn’t that grammar itself isn’t important, because it most definitely is. After all, you can’t use a language properly if you don’t understand how the grammar works. What I actually mean is that explicit or direct STUDY of grammar is not important.
Because, given enough exposure to a new language (whether that’s videos, books, or sessions with conversation partners), you start to understand how the grammar works.
It’s not magic, and it’s most definitely not some “secret” of language learning geniuses. It’s simply natural. Your brain gets input, starts to make sense of how things works, and fills in the blanks.
Want to know how many formal classes of Egyptian Arabic grammar I took? Zero. And while I am by no means a native speaker of Egyptian Arabic…I am quite good.
Get enough exposure to material in Egyptian Arabic, and you naturally learn how the language works. Grammar just isn’t that scary anymore!
There Are Fewer Resources For Arabic Dialects
If you want to know if Egyptian Arabic is hard, you also need to ask yourself a very real, “logistical” question that has almost nothing to do with the language itself.
And that question is this: how easy is it to find study resources? It doesn’t matter how easy a language is….if you have nothing to study it with! With Egyptian Arabic, this is where you start to run into trouble.
If you are learning more popular languages like French or Spanish, you have a wide variety of study material to choose from. Whether it’s books, movies, Youtube videos, or podcasts (or a million other things), you’ll never be lacking in new and fresh study material.
Not so with Egyptian Arabic. The majority of formal study materials will be in Standard Arabic The stuff you do find in Egyptian Arabic is often outdated, not that interesting, overly difficult, or not applicable to everyday situations.
Thankfully, that is slowly changing with various websites dedicated to Arabic dialects.
But the problem still remains. Sadly, this is one of the most common problems frustrated students of Arabic dialects complain about: the lack of study materials. Something to keep in mind when studying Egyptian Arabic.
Not all hope is lost though – here's how to learn everyday Arabic with limited resources.
Speaking Practice Is Easy To Find In Egyptian Arabic
However, there are two positive aspects about learning Egyptian Arabic to balance the lack of materials. And these are: the relative cheapness of hiring online Arabic tutors, and the need to speak Egyptian Arabic once in Egypt.
Because Egypt is so cheap, you can find tutors (especially online) for as low as five dollars an hour! Compare this to a French tutor. They might literally charge you ten times this amount.
Also: Egypt has some of the lowest levels of English in the entire world. This makes speaking Egyptian Arabic once you are there (if you ever plan to go) not only possible – but necessary.
Compare this to a language like Dutch. Sure, you might get really good at the language, but as soon as you are in the Netherlands? The “instant switch to English” is a problem you will likely face once they hear your accent!
One thing is for certain: if you learn Egyptian Arabic and travel to Egypt, you will use Egyptian Arabic. How’s that for motivation? Sure, these two factors don’t necessarily make Egyptian Arabic easier per se.
But they certainly make opportunities for speaking practice easier to come by! And from my own experience with Egyptian Arabic, this has more than made up for the lack of study content.
So…Is Arabic Hard To Learn?
So, in conclusion: is Egyptian Arab hard to learn? Yes and no. As you've seen, learning Egyptian Arabic isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
You need to learn a new alphabet, some new sounds, and various strange grammatical rules. You also have the problem of actually finding study material.
Still, Egyptian Arabic is easier than Standard Arabic, and people overestimate how hard Arabic dialects are in general. Plus, whether you want to travel to Egypt or hire an online tutor, getting speaking practice in is quite easy!
In conclusion, “Is Egyptian Arabic hard to learn?” can largely be answered by how much work you are willing to put in. But you already knew that!