Here's an interesting excerpt from an essay by Shaul Stampfer called 'What Did "Knowing Hebrew" Mean in Eastern Europe?' printed in Hebrew in Ashkenaz, A Language in Exile, ed. Lewis Glinert. (From pp. 132-133, below):
"Not surprisingly, an analysis of how Latin functioned in Christian society sheds light on the place of Hebrew in Jewish society.The similarities between the role of Hebrew and that of Latin are many. The higher educational program of most European societies took a knowledge of Latin for granted. This was not a simple matter, for learning Latin was a long process which could take over eight years.12 However, it was necessary for the individual who wanted to go on to advanced study. The curriculum of the medieval university was based on texts written in Latin, and much scholarly work, depending of course on time and place, was done in Latin. Therefore, "Before the student could profitably attend university lectures, he must have learned to read, write, and understand such Latin as was used in the schools," 13 and this knowledge was the basic academic precondition for admission to the medieval university. University freshmen were "as a rule . . . between thirteen and sizteen"14 and most of their pre-university study was devoted to learning Latin.
"Much, if not all of this advanced education could have been in the spoken language. Indeed, the rapid spread of use of the vernacular in post-Renaissance periods shows how little education is dependent on knowledge of Latin. There is little doubt that the classical literature is well worth studying. However, for the level of understanding that most people reach, a translation is almost as good as the original. What the concentration on Latin did achieve was to weed out the number of students who reached advanced study. Tuition itself cost money. Moreover, it required long-term commitment, for the study of Latin was worthwhile only if the long course of study necessary to reach even an elementary proficiency in Latin was completed. This meant that only children of a certain level of society could in practice prepare themselves for admission to university and higher study. Access was restricted, by using language as a hurdle on the way to valuable knowledge. This in a sense is what kept up the value of the knowledge since it was not readily available to most people. To get information most people had to go to one of the individuals who had learned Latin and had access to the knowledge written in it. The change to the use of the vernacular as the language for scholarly and religious writing meant that one major barrier to the direct acquisition of information was eliminated.
. . .
"One of the virtues of Hebrew appears to have been the fact that a good knowledge of the language and of the literature16 was limited. The relative failure of the heder to produce graduates with a good knowledge of Hebrew was in this respect a very desirable goal from the point of view of the elite. It should be emphasized that both the elite and the masses were totally unaware of this function of education.17
13 Rashdall 1936, 3:341-42; (RASHDALL, HASTINGS. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden, eds. New edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.)
14 Ibid, p. 353
16 I am well aware that the Talmud is written in Aramaic but at the time there was no distinction between the knowledge of the two languages - he who knew one knew the other.
17 For an explanation of this theme from a very original but somewhat different approach, see Funkenstein and Steinsaltz 1987. (FUNKENSTEIN, AMOS and ADIN STEINSALTZ. Sociology of Ignorance. Tel Aviv: University of the Air, 1987.)
See old post (which really could use some revision): 'Semi-talmidei hakhomim, or semi 'amei ha-'aretz: A unique modern challenge to rabbinic authority.'