What makes Arabic such a hard language for an English speaker to learn? The first challenge is the alphabet, in which a dot can transform an "n" into a "t" or an "h" into a "g." Second, because Arabic shares few words with English, a student starts from scratch to build up a working vocabulary. Arabic grammar is downright complicated as well, and very different from English in basic issues like word order.

Unlike most languages, moreover, Arabic has two, very different, versions. Arabs use one language for writing and other formal purposes and another for day-to-day conversation.

The formal language, usually called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is a streamlined version of the classical language, elegant and expressive, but hard to learn. The commonly spoken language (colloquial, or aamiya) uses different grammar, even different vocabulary from MSA. "How are you?" in MSA, for example, is "Kayf halak?" In Egyptian colloquial, it's "Izzayak?"

Colloquial Arabic is much easier to learn than MSA. It lacks MSA's grammatical niceties. In MSA, for example, nouns take case endings, as in Latin or German; colloquial doesn't bother with such folderol. Colloquial is often taught using familiar English letters instead of Arabic script -- why bother with all those troublesome dots when colloquial is rarely written down, anyway?

Despite colloquial's user-friendliness, most language programs in the United States (including those at the State Department) teach Modern Standard. This choice does not reflect linguistic elitism, at least not entirely. MSA has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it remains constant from Morocco to Iraq. All educated Arabs can speak and understand MSA, although native speakers would usually rely on colloquial outside of a formal setting such as a lecture hall or courtroom.

MSA is widely used in diplomatic settings, even among Arabs. An Egyptian and a Moroccan or an Iraqi speaking together might well choose MSA because their respective colloquial languages are very different. Where an Egyptian would ask how you are with "Izzayak?" an Iraqi would say "Shlonek?"

MSA's close association with classical Arabic keeps it from straying too far from the elegant 7th-century language of the Holy Koran. Colloquial dialects, conversely, have mixed and mingled freely with local and Western languages. To an Egyptian, potato is butatis, but to an Iraqi, it's puteeta.

The written/spoken difference helps to explain the relatively high illiteracy rates in the Arab world, especially in rural areas with less exposure to formal speech. In rural Algeria, illiteracy tops 50 percent for men and 85 percent for women. In effect, students must learn to read in a foreign language, as different from their own as Chaucer is from today's English.

MSA poses a major drawback for American diplomats, too: If that's all you speak, you can't talk to ordinary people. Even after years of study, a diplomat speaking only MSA cannot discuss a book or exchange political views with the man on the street. Try using MSA to strike up a conversation in a Cairo cafe or a Rabat taxi, and the reaction will range from polite bafflement to open hilarity.

Since we don't have the resources to bring every diplomat in the Middle East up to fluency in MSA in any case, we can get more out of our scarce language-training dollars if we teach the useful and (comparatively) easy colloquial to our diplomatic corps alongside Modern Standard.

Whether the Arab man in the street says butatis or puteeta, we can't call the whole thing off. We need to talk.

-- Jennifer Bremer