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I've been brought up in the West and I'm interested in learning Classical Arabic. As a first step I'm going through an introduction to Modern Arabic.

I'd like to gauge the distance I've got to go: Is the distance between Classical Arabic to Modern Arabic the same as the distance between say Shakespeare's English & today's, or Chaucer's English & today's, or is it much greater?

Relatedly, I would also like to know how many different words are there in the Qur'an (I've seen some suspiciously low figures).

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Salam Alaikum, you are asking multiple questions here, we do not encourage multiple questions. Please split your questions up. But before you do that, let me inform you that your first question would be of-topic here but will be more on-topic on the Arabic site when it goes to beta. See this for more information. You second question is on-topic, but I suggest you see this before you ask it –  Al Ummat Feb 6 '13 at 3:10
    
Your third question is also of-topic here. –  Al Ummat Feb 6 '13 at 3:11
    
FYI there's also a proposal for an Arabic Language & Usage SE site (currently still in definition). –  goldPseudo Feb 6 '13 at 3:26
    
@AlUmmat: I'll migrate it to the arabic language website once it becomes live. –  Mozibur Ullah Feb 6 '13 at 6:41
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Unfortunately, the difference between classical (fusha) and modern Arabic(s) is catastrophic; the primary reason being that people in Arabic-speaking countries all speak their own local slang dialect.

Why is this a problem? Classical Arabic focuses a lot on grammar and number. It's important (and, in fact, necessary) to speak slowly, because of the complexity of applying all the rules correctly. In pretty much every slang version, they take major shortcuts and throw out grammar -- to the point that people today who speak slang struggle to understand and articulate themselves classical Arabic.

I personally have a similar background (grew up in the west, learned a lot of classical Arabic), and when I visited Makkah, I saw people understand but struggle to figure out how to reply. My advice is to stick to classical, since all the major media (books, universities, newspapers, audio lectures, etc.) are all done in classical Arabic most of the time.

As for your specific questions:

1) The difference between classical Arabic and modern slang is like the difference between Arabic and Urdu, or Arabic and English. You may find some common words and things, but overall, it's a new language.

2) There are roughly 6000-7000 unique words in the Qur'an. There are some words that are repeated often (like "Allah" which appears almost every verse) and some that are never repeated; most vary.

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I've been told that although there is a lot of differences between dialects of Arabic that there is a standardised literate modern arabic, that is what I'm teaching myself. When I mention classical arabic - I mean Koranic arabic. I'm surprised that there is no differences between Koranic arabic and modern literate arabic. –  Mozibur Ullah Feb 6 '13 at 3:50
    
@MoziburUllah we're talking about the same thing. Qur'anic Arabic was THE Arabic of the time; slang came later. That's why we see such a standardization. –  ashes999 Feb 6 '13 at 4:00
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