Well, how is this for a depressing thought. The hours in the library wrestling with case endings only to find MSA going the way of Latin? Insha’allah, I guess, we will see.
It’s certainly true that learning MSA can feel like a Sisyphean task. Having spent six months on it, arriving in Cairo was something of a shock. ‘3Tlah?’ said one guy I met. ‘You’re here on 3Tlah? You speak like a textbook. Igaazah, habibi, igaazah. That’s how we speak in Egypt.’ A few days later, rattling off what I thought was a beautifully turned colloquial sentence I was somewhat disheartened to hear an Arabic-speaking friend commenting to another: ‘Yeah, hear that? She’s speaking MSA. It’s what they teach them at university.’
So on the street chatting with the shabaab MSA can feel somewhat – OK, totally – irrelevant, and if you want to learn to speak like a proper baladi then you’re going to have to free Arabic from the classroom and take it to the shaari3. But there are still valid reasons for learning MSA, both for Arabs and Western students of Arabic like myself.
As Whitaker points out, MSA is ‘a practical means for Arabs from various countries to communicate with each other’; though he argues that news media is a ‘limited’ arena for this communication, it’s surely the most important and growing ever more so as the Middle East’s media networks, both official and unofficial, continue to rapidly develop. It’s also a practical means for non-Arabs to start communicating with the region on a more equitable level. MSA is understood everywhere (even if you sound like a textbook) and can be great for getting started before you pick up the dialect. Feeling slightly foolish aside, learning MSA helped a lot on the streets of Cairo; the gulf between MSA and colloquial often isn’t that huge and what I had learned was a good jumping-off point for then adapting my language to a more informal register. When I go to Damascus I’ll have to swiftly unlearn the Egyptian I picked up and start speaking like a Syrian, but with the basics of my MSA in place it shouldn’t be too difficult.
I’d argue, too, that MSA has an intrinsic value that makes it worth learning. The relative usefulness or uselessness of something is too often used as the only criteria for its worth as a subject – yet we never hear of complaints over Cambridge English lit students studying medieval dream poetry, arguably even more of a niche than MSA. The intellectual exercise of studying something so well-constructed and complex as formal Arabic is challenging and develops you in all sorts of ways. Learning MSA has actually improved my written English, with the necessary scrutiny over grammar and syntax forcing me to reconsider how my own language works.
The cultural worth of MSA is similarly not to be discounted. When you learn case endings in Arabic (one of the hardest bits of MSA – and one of the least ‘useful’) you discover that the Arabic name for case marking roughly translates as ‘making it proper Arabic’. All the old truisms about it being the language of the Qu’ran, the language that has held together a region for hundreds of years, don’t need to be reiterated. It’s one of the richest and most beautiful languages there is and it is by no means dead – Whitaker points out the abundance of loan words but I see this instead as evidence of the flexibility and suppleness of the language. Arabic is not dying, but adapting. Insha’allah.
insha’allah – if God wills
3Tlah/igaazah – both mean holiday, apparently one is more formal than the other!
shabaab – guys
baladi – literally ‘of the homeland’, suggesting colloquial and earthy (!) Arabic
shaari3 – street