The Middle East is one of the most complex regions in the world, and one of the most diverse places in terms of religion, language, and culture. With a population of more than 428 million people, we think it's interesting to discuss the languages and how many you need to know in order to understand people in the Middle East. So let's start the discussion! 😀
What does "the Middle East / الشرق الأوسط / خاورمیانه" Mean?
First of all, let’s see what the Middle East refers to and how many countries there are.
According to Wikipedia, the region referred to as the Middle East consists of 18 countries, including Cyprus and Northern Cyprus. But for the sake of simplicity, we won't include the island of Cyprus (and besides, most of this small population use and understand English quite well).
So here is the list of the countries in the Middle East in order by size, as of 2020, excluding Cyprus and Northern Cyprus:
- Egypt / 101.4 million
- Turkey / 83.9 million
- Iran / 83.4 million
- Iraq / 39.8 million
- Saudi Arabia / 34.6 million
- Yemen / 29.5 million
- Syria / 17.1 million
- Jordan / 10.2 million
- United Arab Emirates / 9.8 million
- Israel / 8.6 million
- Lebanon / 6.9 million
- Oman / 5.04 million
- State of Palestine / 5.02 million
- Kuwait / 4.2 million
- Qatar / 2.9 million
- Bahrain / 1.67 million
Total population: 444 million
Languages of the Middle East
Now let's review each of the languages:
The Arabic Language
Estimated time to reach fluency in Arabic: 3-5 years
Arabic belongs to the Afroasiatic language family, and is in the Semitic branch of the family, named after Shem, the son of Noah. Other languages in this branch include Hebrew and the languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic. Arabic poses difficulties for the learner since the script is written from right to left and appears completely different from the Latin script, the grammar and word order is completely different, and there are a large number of irregularities in the language that must be memorized. One of the advantages of the language is a consistent pattern of roots that, once mastered, can help you acquire a massive vocabulary without needing to memorize increasingly harder words, which arguably could be easier than learning more difficult English vocabulary.
Arabic is the official language in the following countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, State of Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, and Yemen.
This represents 268 million people or 60% of the population. The majority of the countries in the Middle East speak Arabic, and it's the number one language you need to know. But Arabic is complicated by the fact that it has many dialects. The differences between the dialects can often be significant. Although standard Arabic is used in schools and books, locals don’t communicate in standard Arabic in their daily life. Standard Arabic is the equivalent of speaking English like Shakespeare would.
The Turkish Language
Estimated time to reach fluency in Turkish: 2-3 years
One of the major languages of the Middle East is Turkish. Turkey has a population of more than 80 million people. Turkish belongs to the Turkic language family, named after Turkish itself, but there are many other languages in Central Asia that belong to this family including Azerbaijani, Uzbek, and Kazakh. In fact, many people from all over Central Asia are able to learn Turkish very easily, so it already has a large number of 2nd language speakers.
Since Arabic and Turkish belong to different language families, the grammar is completely different. Over long periods of interaction and influence, Turkish has acquired a large number of loanwords from Arabic. Unlike Arabic, Turkish is known to have a very systematic and consistent grammar without irregularities, so it is relatively easier to learn. It also helps speakers of English immensely since it is written in the Latin script.
The Persian Language
Estimated time to reach fluency in Persian: 1-2 years
The Persian language is the official language of Iran, Afghanistan (where it is called Dari), and Tajikistan (where it is called Tajik). By the way, the -stan ending on these country names is related to English "stand, state, stance, station", itself from the Latin "sta-" meaning "to be". Persian belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. Persian evolved from an ancient language called Avestan. Avestan and Sanskrit can be considered dialects of the same language, as they are almost exactly the same. Persian has a lot in common with Latin and Greek, and therefore, also with English.
Together with Afghanistan's 38.5 million and Tajikistan's 9.4 million, Persian has 131 million speakers. Although Iran has a lot of different ethnic groups and languages, almost everyone in Iran can speak Persian as the national standard language.
Compared to Turkish, Persian has been more heavily influenced by Arabic, but like Turkish, the language structure and grammar hasn’t been affected by Arabic, and the speakers of Persian cannot communicate with Arabic speakers using Persian language and vice versa.
If you'd like to communicate with the people of Iran, you'll need to learn Persian. When speaking Persian, one refers to the language as Farsi. We normally refer to the language as Persian in English, just as we don't call Spanish: Español, or German: Deutsch. If you have already studied Arabic, you will be able to learn Persian much faster, since both Arabic and Persian share a very similar alphabet, and there are thousands of Arabic loanwords in Persian. Keep in mind that just because the two languages are written in the same alphabet doesn't mean an Arabic speaker can understand it. It would be like an English speaker trying to read Polish: "do najważniejszych odmian języka perskiego" and trying to recognize the cognate word "Persian" in that sentence (did you see it?).
Since Persian is part of the Indo-European language family, learning Persian is easier if you are from Europe or India, and the grammar is quite similar to most European languages. For example, verb conjugation in Persian is remarkably similar to Italian, but with much fewer conjugation tables and tenses.
In terms of difficulty of the languages in the region, Turkish appears to be the easiest, but Persian is the most closely related to English, though the script may make it challenging, and Arabic is obviously the most difficult.
The Kurdish Language
Estimated time to reach fluency in Kurdish (either dialect): 1-2 years
Technically, if you speak Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, you can communicate with most of the Kurds. But if you want to get to know the Kurds and their culture, then you need to learn the Kurdish language.
The Kurdish language is not one united language, it has two main dialects (Kurmanji dialect in the North, Sorani dialect in the Central, and more scattered dialects to the South), and the difference between the two main dialects is significant. More than 80% of all Kurds speak Kurmanji, and this is why currently the Google Translate supports Kurmanji dialect and not Sorani dialect.
You can learn Kurdish Sorani on Glossika completely free of charge. Sign up for an account and check out more details!
Why does Glossika have a Kurdish Sorani course? Well, Sorani is my native language, and I grew up speaking Turkish, Persian, and Arabic as well! Check out some of my videos on the Glossika YouTube channel to learn more about the languages of the Middle East!
Kurdish is an official language in Iraq alongside the Arabic language, and it’s the main language spoken in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There are around 40-50 million Kurds, making Kurdish the fourth largest language in the Middle East.
Kurdish belongs to the Indo-European language family. The closest language to Kurdish is Persian; so the grammar is quite similar to Persian. There are also hundreds of loanwords from Arabic, so if you already know Persian and/or Arabic, then learning Kurdish would be very easy.
The Hebrew Language
Estimated time to reach fluency in Hebrew: 1-2 years.
Hebrew is one of the key languages to learn to understand all about the Middle East.
The Hebrew language is the official language in Israel; it has around 9 million speakers. Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, so they are in the same language family. That means if you already know Arabic, then you will find Hebrew very familiar, and it will definitely help you learn Hebrew much faster.
Hebrew is easier to learn than Arabic, since Arabic grammar is much more complicated. So if you have already mastered the Arabic language, learning Hebrew will not be challenging.
For example, most of the Arabic roots that I mentioned above, will help you a lot in learning Hebrew. You probably already know one of the roots from both languages: salam (peace) in Arabic, and shalom (peace) in Hebrew. In Arabic, we simply add i- or mu- to the beginning of the word to create the words Islam and Muslim (the vowels tend to alternate, but the words will keep the s-l-m root).
Because Hebrew is the only language that I haven’t studied, I cannot tell how much time you need to master this language. But since Hebrew grammar is less complicated than Arabic, and assuming that your Arabic is fluent, then I assume it should only take 1-2 years to reach fluency in Hebrew.
Let’s take a look at the map again with the languages overlaid:
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