Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of European history, would know that Latin was taught orally, and used actively as a spoken second language, uninterruptedly from Roman times, until well into the late 1700’s. Universities across Europe conducted all their business in Latin as well. In some European countries, this tradition continued into the mid 1800’s. Waquet’s “Empire of the Sign” is instructive reading. Certain schools forbad speaking anything but Latin on the school premises. It is, quite simply, a canard that spoken Latin dies with the Romans. for centuries, educated Europe was di-glott, with Latin as a second language learned and used actively.
It is simply faster to learn to read, to understand, if you are immersed in the language. Any other method only caters to the 2% of students who can learn a language from grammar alone. To teach them this way, is to fail the majority.
The issue is, we are using literary Latin when we speak, the Latin spoken on the Palatine Hill – we are not concerned for the most part with the vulgar Latin. We are using the Latin that was handed down to us, and in more recent times, refined by the likes of Erasmus,Vives, Comenius etc, for colloquial and practical use.
Students who learn their declensions, tenses and sentence structures though talking and listening to Latin in class, learn them fast, and can understand a text much better – they reach a stage where they can READ LATIN – i.e. not translate it into English into Latin as they go, but only to have a Latin discourse in their heads. This is ‘reading’. It is not the same thing as ‘translating’. Most Latin teachers nowadays do not teach their students to read Latin, and few can actually do it themselves, let alone speak it)
Sentence structure becomes intuitive when taught this way. If you are taught orally, you have to rely on your intuition. You cannot ‘hunt for the verb’ when dealing with Latin orally, your brain is forced to do what it does when learning other complex languages, like Russian or Polish. Sentences flow by, and you have to deal with them as a Roman did……and everyone in Rome could speak Latin, as Reginald Foster likes to say, even the prostitutes.
The reality is, the standards in the early 21st Century are now very low by historical standards – with most highly fluent speakers now aged over 60, the last survivors of an unbroken line of speakers of Latin going back to the Romans, without a break.
However, there is hope – growing numbers of people attend conventicula and spoken Latin workshops. Latin only immersion environments exist at Kentucky (Terentius) and in the Vivarium (Aloisius) in Rome. Circuli Latini (Latin Clubs) are maintaining their ground across the world, and new ones keep sprouting up - over 1300 members are registered on Schola, an all-Latin social networking site, its chatroom is active every day. There is life in Latin yet.