Now, whenever estimates are made about the numbers of people fluent in a particular language, there is one fundamental difficulty: How fluent is fluent? Who decides who is fluent and who is not? Nevertheless, let us carry on as if this topic were addressable.
To me, the only thing which makes the claim that only 100 people in the world are fluent in Latin interesting is that Reginald Foster made the estimate, and Reginald Foster is a priest who used to work in the Vatican and write the Vatican's official Latin-language pronouncements. Until 2009. He says, "The text of Vatican II has glorious passages in Latin but can the young priest walking across St Peter's Square understand it? I don't think so." Foster is an internationally-recognized expert on the Latin language and Latin literature, but can we take him at his word about the current state of the language's decline?
I don't believe we can. I'm sorry, but it's ridiculous. There must be more than 100 fluent speakers of Latin the Vatican alone. Latin still is the official Language there. Catholic schools all around the world still teach Latin -- not as intensely as they used to, to be sure, but they still teach it. Out of the billion or so Catholics in the world to day, and the group of people within those billion people who become young priests and young nuns, and out of that group, the ones who are chosen from all over the world to work in the Vatican -- are you going to try to tell me that competence in the native language of that workplace is such a low priority that they're unable to find enough young clergypeople who speak it, who, combined with the number of older clergypeople who still speak it, and then combined them with all the people in the rest of the world, it's not going to add up to more than 100? No sale.
There are over 4000 universities in the US. I know that not every single one of them has a Department of Classics, but are you saying that the Department of Classics which there are cannot produce between them one instructor of Classics per every 40 universities who is fluent is Latin? Before we even get to the students studying in those Departments of Classics, before we even get to those previously-mentioned Catholic schools and all of their instructors and students of Latin, and all of the other primary and secondary schools which offer courses in Latin, and not counting other departments where such as ancient and Medieval history where a knowledge of Latin is essential,
before we even get to any countries besides the US -- sorry, no. It's absurd.
Perhaps Foster was mis-quoted, and perhaps he also has an extremely-high standard for what he calls fluency in Latin. Perhaps what he actually said what that there are only 100 people currently living in the Vatican who meet his extremely-high standard. Or maybe he said that out of all the people all over the world who have studied the language their entire lives and teach it for a living, only 100,000 or so do it well enough to suit him, and if that's what he really said and if it's a reasonably-accurate estimate, perhaps that does represent a steep decline from the year 1900.
Or maybe he wasn't misquoted at all and he really is that staggeringly wrong about it. I may look into this a little further. (Look -- Harvard University's Department of the Classics has 31 faculty members and 30 graduate students. Surely at least 1 or 2 of them are not complete imposters, and understand Latin.)
PS, 9. August 2015: Until today I had studied Latin in fairly pristine isolation. Today, people have reacted to this blog post and informed me that there is a vast difference between the number of people who can read Latin, and those who can speak it. In fact, although it boggles my mind it even seems that some Classicists actually disapprove of current attempts to speak Latin. In the post above I make the mistake of assuming that the number of people who study Latin and the number of people who speak it were close to the same. But it appears that the latter number is much lower. When I studied modern languages in universities between 1982 and 1992, great emphasis was lain upon proficiency in speaking those languages. I made the mistake, in this post, of imagining that instruction in Latin was similar. There are a few concentrated attempts here and there to cultivate spoken Latin, but it seems that among academic Classicists such attempts are the exception to the rule. Mea culpa, lectores benevoles! [And, just as every single other time when I've attempted to write in Latin on this blog, I apologize again if I wrote it wrong. I meant to say: I'm sorry, kind readers!]