What Language in Tunisia?

Page update - Jan 7, 2023

What language do Tunisians use to communicate with each other? Do they speak English? Which foreign language is most comfortable for vacation in Tunisia? What phrasebook to take with you or what smartphone translation app to install? Read the answers on this page.

Official language of Tunisia

The only official language of the Republic of Tunisia is MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) which is the modern and commonly spoken version of Arabic.

MSA is official in all Arab countries. And as in most Arab countries, the official language is not spoken in everyday life.

What language is spoken daily?

The Tunisian version of "Darja".

Darja is a family of Arabic dialects in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara). There are six relatively widespread dialects and about a hundred of less widespread ones in the Darja group.

The Tunisian dialect can be surely called the most colorful and interesting in the Darja group. It contains words from Neo-Punic, African Latin, Berber, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, and French.

What is the difference between Arabic dialects and MSA?

The difference is mainly in words. If Arabs from Tunisia and the Arab Emirates start speaking their dialects, they will understand each other, but only in general terms. To understand each other fully, they will have to explain the meaning of the words in their dialects to each other.

In order to understand each other, the Arabic world has MSA which is known in all Arab countries although it is not spoken in everyday life. Such a common language is called "lingua franca".

If a Tunisian and an Algerian talk, they will understand each other almost fully. Their dialects are very close, both from the Darja group.

French language in Tunisia

According to the latest statistics, French is spoken by 63% of the population. French is NOT the official language in Tunisia, but is very common in the scientific and technical fields.

All technical instructions and manuals are written in French. All dashboards of machines and instruments are written in French. All scientific works are written in French, except in the humanities. Even the taximeters in Tunisian cabs are in French, as we explained in detail in the review "Taxis in Tunisia".

All Tunisian children in schools learn French from the first grade. In secondary school, many subjects are taught in French only. By the end of secondary school, a Tunisian speaks, reads, writes French fluently.

This is a legacy from the Protectorate era when Tunisia was effectively a French colony. Tunisia still has the strongest economic and cultural ties with France.

What's in what language

Everyday Tunisian dialect
Newspapers and magazines Arabic MSA
TV and radio: news, religious broadcasts Arabic MSA
TV and radio: other themes Tunisian dialect, MSA, French
Laws and official documents MSA + French (optional)
Private documents: contracts, wills and other MSA + French (optional)
Technical documents, instructions, dashboards French

Do they know English well?

Rather well.

Nowadays, English is taught to all schoolchildren from the age of 10. The average Tunisian graduates from school with decent skills of English. The quality of knowledge increases every year and it is likely that English will become even more widespread in Tunisia than French.

Of course, don't expect the linguistic refinements of English. In tourist areas, everyone has a minimum vocabulary of about 200-300 words. It is enough to agree on anything important for a tourist. If you speak English, you won't get lost and will solve any problem in the resort areas.

English is not so well known outside the resort areas. Many Tunisians studied at school in old times when English was not compulsory. In Sfax or the capital, Tunis, taxi drivers and vendors do not usually speak English.

Berber language

The language of the Berbers, Tunisia's local minor population. The Arabs call it "Shilha". It is spoken in Tunisia by about 0.3% of the population. The inhabitants of Berber villages in the south of the country: Chenini, Douiret, Matmata, Tamezret. Also on the island of Djerba - Guellala, Ajim, Sedouikech and others.

The pure Berber language is now almost extinct. Only elderly people speak pure Berber. Younger Berbers speak a mixture of Berber and Arabic.

It is likely that by 2040, the Berber language will disappear as a spoken language. Tunisian scientists are now carrying out an operation to save the language. They travel around Berber villages, actively communicating with the elders and recording their speech on dictaphones.

Smartphone helps

Many tourists download smartphone translation apps in advance. It is very useful when traveling, but in the case of Tunisia there is one important point. Prefer to use this app with French.

More interesting things about Tunisians

- Tunisians consider themselves to be Arabs, and culturally this is indeed true. However, an interesting point is that genetically they are not Arabs at all. Read more in our in-depth review "Who are modern Tunisians genetically".

Have a great vacation in Tunisia and read our interesting pages about Tunisia (find the pages list below). © 2020-2024