Arabic is spoken by approximately 420 million people worldwide. Mainly, it is spoken in the Middle East and North Africa, however it is also widely used in Southeast Asia. It is the official language of Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Palestine, and Western Sahara.
To bridge perceived divides between English and Arabic, it is commonly proclaimed that various words in English have their roots in Arabic, such as coffee, cotton, alcohol, algebra, and nadir. For those studying Arabic in university classrooms, they are mostly taught Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or al-fusha (الفصحى). MSA is used in contemporary publications and the media—the language of academia, the media, literature, the state, and religious texts. MSA is actually a descendent of “Classical Arabic,” and historically used between the 7th and 9th century AD in classic literary texts of the period.
The ways that Arabic is currently spoken varies drastically across and within the 28 countries listed above, with major divergences occurring between cities and rural spaces. Dialects tend to be used for everyday conversation between native speakers as well as day-to-day business. Dialects can vary dramatically depending on location; there are around 26 dialects of Arabic all throughout the Arabic speaking world. Dialects can vary so much that it is possible for two Arabic speakers, one from Morocco and one from Lebanon, to not even understand each other. The difference in these two dialects is partially due to the influence of other languages; for example, Moroccan Arabic is influenced by Spanish, French, and Amazigh. The difference between dialects and MSA is both grammatical (including the loss of case endings, loss of passive voice, or changing the conjugation of verbs) and lexical (different words).
This split, between spoken dialect and MSA, has been a major curricular question for both non-native learners and native speakers learning the language within spaces where Arabic is the official language. What should students focus on? And what is the relationship between dialects and MSA? Most often, non-native learners of the language begin to pick up dialects during study abroad or travels. Increasingly departments and programs for non-native programs offer dialect instruction. In terms of curriculum, this focus on dialect is a relatively recent occurence. However, dialect and MSA are deeply intertwined, and the spaces between the two are often not as strictly divided as coursework implies, with mixing and switches between various dialects and MSA taking place in and outside of classrooms, public spaces, coffee shops, and homes.