Arabic is a Semitic language spoken by between 200 and 400 million native speakers, and a further 250 million non-native speakers, in nearly twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a standard form of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is based on the language of the Koran, Classical Arabic, and is used as the lingua franca among educated Arabic speakers from different regions, as well as the main language of the media and films.
There are also many spoken or colloquial varieties of Arabic with different degrees of mutual intelligibility between them. Some are so different that they could be considered separate languages. The colloquial form of Arabic understood by the most people is Egyptian Arabic, thanks to the popularity of Egyptian films and TV programmes throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
Arabic originated in Arabia and first appeared in writing during the 6th century AD in the Arabic alphabet, which developed from the Nabataean Aramaic alphabet. Classical Arabic emerged during the 7th century AD and was spread by the Arab conquests of Asia and Africa, as well as by trade and religion to other regions. In many of the conquered areas Arabic started off as the language of government, education and reglion, and eventually became the main everyday language.
In some regions, such as Spain and Mauritania, pidgin and creole forms of Arabic mixed with local languages emerged. Arabic words also infiltrated many of the languages spoken in the regions to which Islam spread. For example there are numerous Arabic loanwords in Urdu, Farsi, Spanish and Swahili.
Methods of writing local languages using the Arabic alphabet have been devised and some, such as those in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, are still used. Others, such as those in much of Central Asia, have been abandoned in favour of the Cyrillic or Latin alphabets.
Arabic is quite a challenging language to learn for a number of reasons: it uses a number of sounds pronounced way back in the throat that can be tricky for speakers of English and other languages. It is written with a cursive alphabet running from right to left in which the letters change shape depending on their position in a word. Some of the vowels are not usually written, except in the Koran and books for children. The grammar of MSA is fairly complex and not all native speakers master all of its intricacies, however the grammar of the colloquial forms of Arabic is somewhat simpler.