Arabic and Farsi (or Persian) are two very different languages. Some people assume the two languages to be related, but they aren't, not except for a few loanwords that Farsi has borrowed from Arabic.
You want to learn one of them, but don't know which one to pick. In this article, I'll try shedding a bit of light on some of the pros and cons for each language.
But first - here's the quick answer for those of you who don't want to read this whole thing:
Persian is an easier language to learn and it's more homogenous in the different countries where it's spoken. Arabic on the other hand is extremely difficult and has huge regional differences which means that you'll have to choose a dialect to focus on. Professionally and in terms of tourism, Arabic might get you further than Persian, but in the end, you need to look inwards and pick the language you love the most.
Tip: If you're looking for a good place to start learning Arabic or Farsi, then I recommend these:
- Talk In Arabic (hands down the best Arabic resource for spoken dialects)
- PersianPod101 (the most comprehensive online resource for Farsi)
A Little Background About Arabic And Farsi
Arabic is a Semitic language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Arabic language is closely related to Hebrew, with which it shares a lot of grammatical features as well as vocabulary.
Arabic exists in a lot of different dialects that aren't always (or hardly ever) mutually intelligible, but the formal version "Modern Standard Arabic" is commonly used in most media. Altogether the Arabic language (or languages) has around 310 million speakers from the Middle East to North Africa.
Farsi or Persian is an Indo-European language, which means that it has a common ancestor with English. Despite Farsi being related to European languages, the language is very different from almost all of them. Among Farsi's closest present-day relatives are the Romani, Kurdish, and Pashtu languages.
Persian is spoken by around 110 million people worldwide, most of whom live in Iran, but the language is equally spoken in Afganistan, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, and in smaller numbers in different countries in the region.
Diglossia And Dialects In The Two Languages
Something that's quite different about the two languages is the variants that exist of each. Farsi goes by many names. Farsi, Persian, Dari, Tajiki, and more. But while these do represent different dialects, they're all the same, completely mutually intelligible, language.
They're all versions of "Persian", Farsi (or Parsi, if we were to discount the Arabized spelling without the "P") being the variant of Teheran and Tajiki and Dari being the dialect which has its center in Afganistan (although also spoken in Tajikstan).
So while Farsi, Dari, and Tajiki are treated as different languages, they're practically the same, which means that you could get by almost everywhere a variant of Persian is spoken if you knew Farsi.
Now what about Arabic?
With Arabic, I'd be tempted to say that the opposite is the case.
Arabic is an official language in 26 or 27 different countries in the world. Yet it's very different depending on the region.
There are several, very different variants of Arabic. Some are spoken in the Arabian Gulf, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Levantine dialect, which is spoken in Syria and Palestine, the Egyptian dialect and Maghrebi dialect of Morocco, Algeria, and so on.
Some, if not most of these dialects are mutually intelligible. But only to some extent. A Saudi and a Syrian don't speak in the same way. They use different vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, and when comparing them to Egypt, the difference becomes even more staggering.
The North African dialects, like Algerian, are notoriously different from the rest, and many people don't consider them dialects at all, but separate languages.
The thing is, however, that the distinction between "dialect" and "language" is political much more than linguistic. Tunisians and Yemenis both speak Arabic and that's the official story even though they'd have problems understanding one another without adapting to the other language or switching out words, pronunciation, and grammar patterns with the "Standard Arabic" way of speaking.
This brings us to one of the reuniting factors in the story of Arabic languages.
Modern Standard Arabic.
Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, or Fusha (or even Fus7a) is a standardized variant of Arabic based on classical Arabic, which is used broadly throughout the Arabic-speaking world as a sort of "official" language.
It's quite peculiar, though, because it's a language that almost everyone in the countries mentioned understands - but only a small minority speak. MSA is used for writing, education, official discourse, media, and that sort of thing. But never for conversation.
Standard Arabic isn't a dead language - but it's living a strange zombie-like existence where it's neither dead nor alive.
What all this means is, that even though over 300 million people worldwide speak Arabic, many of them speak very different forms of Arabic, and the one language that reunites them all is practically spoken by none!
To really become fluent in Arabic, you need to know both MSA and a dialect. Many opt for Egyptian or Levantine because they're more commonly understood, but there's no dialect that'll allow you to understand anyone. This is part of the reason why learning Arabic takes too long!
So while Farsi will allow you to communicate with all Farsi, Dari, and Tajiki speakers, Arabic will only let you speak with those that speak the same dialect as you do.
Pick The Language Which Is Easier To Learn
So is Farsi or Arabic easier to learn?
Let me just come straight out and say this: Farsi is easier than Arabic.
These questions normally demand a lot of digging, research, and good arguments to - somewhat - answer, but in this case, it's just too obvious.
Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit.
Farsi isn't as easy for an English speaker as Dutch, Swedish, or even French. But I'd argue that it's easier to learn than, for example, a Slavic language such as Russian.
The grammar is only moderately complicated. The pronunciation can, at times, be difficult, but isn't impossible and while some vocabulary (especially Arabic loan-words) may seem exotic, they're not the hardest to learn.
Arabic on the other hand, is difficult. The grammar is very complicated with its cases and its broken plurals and elaborated conjugation system. The pronunciation will turn your hair white if it isn't already (otherwise it'll turn blue), and the vocabulary is, in my opinion, hard to remember and words are hard to tell apart.
Sure, it all depends on a load of factors and variables and some might say that Arabic isn't so bad. Others might argue why Farsi is more difficult than I'm letting on.
But if you were to pick a language for how easy it is? I'd go with Farsi.
Try having a look at the two languages through my language study time calculator as well.
Arabic Or Farsi For Tourism?
If you want to learn either Farsi or Arabic for traveling the world and being a tourist, both languages will be invaluable.
Iran, Afganistan, and Tajikstan on one hand, and the Arabic-speaking regions of the world on the other, have an enormous wealth of history, archeology, cuisine, nature, and great experiences to offer.
While some regions and countries are very open and popular tourist destinations, others are less so. But just because a country isn't a popular tourist destination, doesn't mean that it doesn't have a lot to offer. You should do your research and due diligence before going, however.
Iran has an enormous amount of things to offer. The nature is spectacular and varied, the architecture is pure art and the people are friendly and easy-going. Politically, however, some countries might have restricted access to traveling in Iran, and you might have to consider relying on a guide when going there.
This mostly applies to citizens from the US, Canada, and the UK, however. Most European countries do, in fact, have an easier time getting around in Iran.
When it comes to Arabic, speaking the language will gain you access to a lot of different countries. Egypt is an extremely popular tourist destination that needs no more introduction. If you've got the basics down of Egyptian Arabic it will be sure to open up doors to experiences that English-speaking tourists might never imagine.
The North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, too have an almost infinite richness of nature, old Kasbahs dessert Oases, amazing food, history, and friendly people. I also would like to recommend going to Algeria specifically. It's the lesser-known among the three North-African countries, but it's geographically the biggest and it has even more to offer than the other two. (If you ask me).
Then there's the Arabian Gulf, with countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, and especially the Emirates, which are also more well-known tourist destinations known for their special range of oriental luxury.
Finally, the Levantine countries of Lebanon and Jordan, or even some regions in Palestine and Syria (if you take your precautions and read up on the situation) each have thousands of years' worth of history, culture, archeology, and great experiences to offer.
But all of these Arabic-speaking countries speak different languages.
And that's probably the main reason why Arabic isn't automatically my main recommendation for tourism. If you go to any of the above countries and try to speak with the local population in Modern Standard Arabic, you'll be greeted with strange looks, awkward smiles, and perhaps a few giggles (even though most people are too polite to do that).
Despite MSA being the "official" language in all of these countries, it remains a very formal, solemn, and stilted way of expressing oneself, sort of if you were to visit New York using your best Shakespearian English.
If you try speaking Standard Arabic in an "Arabic-speaking" country, after the initial reaction, you'll have people respond to you in either their local dialect or in English (or in some cases, French!).
So in short: Learning Arabic doesn't just open doors to 310 million Arabic speakers. You need to learn the specific language of the people you want to speak with, or it won't get you far. Each dialect is probably spoken by between 50-100 million people, though, but you'll be limited geographically.
Learning Farsi will permit you to speak with virtually all "Persian" speakers, but traveling in the countries where the language is spoken might be more complicated for some people than the Arabic-speaking countries.
Job Opportunities And Business
Okay, I'm just going to touch very briefly on this, because the topic is so huge that it would require not just a blog post, but probably a whole book to probably explain it. (And I'd have to do a lot more research!)
The Arabic-speaking countries in the world represent some of the richest, but also some of the poorest countries in the world. In between is a large number of developing, up-and-coming countries where your investments and efforts could go a long way in developing the region as well as your business.
For the richest Arabic-speaking countries, the oil and gas industry is the most important industry. If you speak Arabic and are an expert in any energy-related field, you'll get a lot of opportunities in many of these countries. This even goes for English speakers.
Iran, despite being a sizeable economy, is difficult terrain for Western investment due to the last decades of political disagreements and sanctions. It's possible, however, that the situation might ease up in the future, which will mean that there'll be a much bigger need for Farsi-speaking people with the right qualifications.
Conclusion: Should You Learn Arabic Or Farsi?
Okay, we've spoken about Arabic and Farsi and how the two languages will benefit you in different ways. But which one do I recommend that you learn?
Well, this entirely depends on you. As I've described above, Arabic is not just one language, but several, and to really benefit from Arabic (unless you mostly deal with the written word) you have to learn the dialect of your target country.
This sort of disqualifies the argument of the Arabic language being spoken by more people.
Farsi is much more universally spoken in the different "Persian" speaking countries of the world. But Iran and Afghanistan might be more difficult to approach as a tourist or an investor.
One important factor I haven't addressed though is your motivation.
Which language are you actually more motivated to learn? Do you like one of them better than the other? Are you in love with the Egyptian film industry or Persian poetry? Is the mother tongue of your significant other Libyan Arabic or Tajiki?
The difficulty, the economic incentives, and the global range of a language dwindle next to your emotional connection to it. If your mind tells you to learn Gulf-Arabic, but your heart wants to learn Dari, go for Dari.