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The sole official language of Saudi Arabia is Arabic. It is the first language of all Saudi citizens, plus around a third of the country’s 9 million expats. Many of the latter speak divergent dialects of Arabic, with Egyptian Arabic being the most common. Other expat first languages include Tagalog, the first language of the Philippines; the South Asian languages Bengali, Urdu and Rohingya; Farsi (Persian) and Somali.
By far the most commonly used second language is English, especially in business contexts. It is possible to get by with only basic Arabic for quite a long time, especially if you spend nearly all of your time with expats, such as when living in a gated compound. However, if you are staying long-term, you will increasingly find yourself in situations where fluency in Arabic is required. Furthermore, laws and official documents only exist in Arabic, and you will miss out on much of the local culture without knowing some of the local language.
Arabic is spoken by more than 200 million people and is an official language in 25 countries. Over this vast area, dialects of Arabic diverge greatly, to the extent that some can be considered different languages. The standard version, Modern Standard Arabic, is known by most Arabic speakers and helps those from different regions to understand each other better.
Locals in Saudi Arabia speak dialects of Gulf Arabic. This is the most similar variety to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), so if you have learnt this you will find it easy to be understood. Hence, if you are beginner, it is best to learn Gulf Arabic, or MSA if you are going to travel extensively around the region. Some language schools offer Classical Arabic; this is similar to MSA but more abstruse and of little use in the modern world. It is rather like being given lessons in Shakespearean English.
Levantine Arabic is quite similar to MSA and Gulf Arabic, while Egyptian Arabic has considerable currency on the Arabian peninsula. This is partly because there are many Egyptians in the country and partly because Egypt leads the Arabic-speaking world in film, television and other media. On the other hand, if you only know one of the divergent dialects such as Moroccan Arabic, be prepared for a lot of blank looks.
Overall, Arabic is a hard language to learn. The grammar at first seems formidable, although there are patterns – in the verb conjugations for example – that become more familiar once you have learnt several of them. The pronunciation will probably seem strange at first, and there are quite a few bizarre consonants. On the other hand, the syllable structure is quite simple.
Very little Arabic vocabulary is likely to be familiar, though it will help if you know Spanish or Portuguese, as these languages have borrowed many words from Arabic. Fortunately, due to the way words are constructed in Arabic, once you have learnt a word, you will often be able to make educated guesses at its near relatives, and hence build up your vocabulary quite quickly. For example, kitab means ‘book’. Take away the ‘i’, add the prefix ma-, which signifies a place, and you have maktab – a place that contains books, that is, alibrary. Similarly, darasa (‘to learn’) yields madrasah (‘school’).
Although learning a new script may seem daunting at first, Arabic script is relatively simple, certainly much simpler than the Chinese and Japanese writing systems. There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, though some of these look the same except for the dots above or below the main part of the letter. Many letters are written differently depending on their position in the word. This is comparable to the handwriting of people who use Roman script; the difference is that in Arabic the differences are formalised.
Early progress in literacy, however, is made harder by the fact that vowels and other diacritics are not shown in normal text. You actually need to become familiar with how the language works before the system starts to make sense.
Arabic language courses are widely available on the internet as distance learning projects. The BBC language website has an Arabic section, offering free Arabic language courses and provides information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture lists a number of websites that offer Arabic language tuition. Learning materials are most often in Egyptian Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic.
Once you have gained a basic ability in Arabic, you can improve on this by participating in language exchange sessions, in face-to-face meetings or on the internet. Sessions usually involve two to four people speaking in their mother tongue for half the session and Arabic for the other half. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does Language Exchange. This site offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Arabic and 114 other languages.
As a multilingual country, Saudi Arabia also offers the opportunity to learn several other languages, such as those mentioned above. You will not generally need to do so but it may be useful nevertheless.
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