Arabic is a language spoken by over 250 million people ‘from the Ocean to the Gulf’ as the Arabs say. That includes Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara in the West, and stretches to Iraq, the Gulf states and Somalia in the East. It is the official language in 26 countries, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It is also the sacred language of around 1.5 billion Muslims across the world, and the language in which some of the world's greatest works of literature, science, and history have been written.
According to the teachings of Islam, Classical Arabic is the language in which Allah chose to speak to humankind through Prophetlingua franca Muhammad in the 7th century of the Christian era. It is the language of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. This is the language of Islamic and classical texts. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of books and news broadcasts, poetry and political speeches across the whole Arab world, the language that every Arab primary school child learns to read and write in. It is the ever versatile language of the Arabic poetical tradition, the precise language of the jurists and the theologians, the dazzling rhetoric of the orators and the preachers, and the of the internet. Knowing Arabic gives an opportunity to communicate with people throughout the Middle East, and provides access to the the richness and passion of the contemporary Arab world. Arabic is the means for exploring almost 14 centuries of one of the most sophisticated, varied, and rich intellectual heritages in the world.
However, nobody speaks Standard Arabic as their native language. They learn it at school, but the mother tongue of a native Arabic speaker is the dialect of their own country—and even that of the specific region of their country. The Cambridge classroom attempts to mirror the Arab world, using Syrian dialect to speak and Standard Arabic to read and write. Syrian has the advantage of being a central dialect that Arabs from other parts can readily understand, and which can easily be adapted to speaking in other dialects. When students spend their year in the Middle East, they come back speaking the dialect of whichever country they have chosen to spend their time in, so that the fourth-year language classroom, like the Arab world itself, is a mix of dialects. Just as Standard Arabic gives access to the thought and literature of the Arabs, so the dialects give access to their everyday lives.