Modern foreign languages should be made compulsory for primary and secondary pupils in Wales to reverse tumbling exam entries, say business leaders and linguists.
Less than a third of 15-year-olds in Wales took an MFL GCSE in 2004, compared with 68 per cent in England, according to new statistics from the Welsh Assembly.
Things have not improved this summer, with French and German GCSE entries down by 6 and 8 per cent respectively. Critics fear the subject could become the domain of middle-class children, privately-educated pupils, and girls.
CBI Wales this week called for MFLs to be compulsory up to 16. At present, Welsh pupils can opt out at 14.
Emma Watkins, CBI Wales's head of policy, said: "Employers are telling us they need job candidates with MFL skills but they are scarce. A Welsh manufacturing company told me it could not find a French speaker locally to fill a post. An MFL, apart from Welsh, should be compulsory for pupils of GCSE age. German, French, Spanish and even Mandarin are all languages which would improve job hunters' chances."
Ceri James, director of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research Cymru, said young people were missing out on good jobs, both overseas and at home, because of their failure to learn MFLs. In most European countries, children start studying a second language in primary school, continue to 16, and spend more time in language lessons than Welsh students.
He added: "If we are serious about catching up with Europe, then I would advocate compulsory languages at the primary stage. But I wouldn't underestimate the cost: it has to be a long-term, strategic development.
"We have an advantage (as a bilingual nation), but perhaps we are not building on it as we should because languages aren't considered really important subjects."
An Assembly-funded pilot project bringing French and German to thousands of Year 5 and 6 pupils has just started its third year. A decision on its future will be made next year. An Assembly spokesman said it was working to tackle the decline in GCSE entries, and that rates were higher in England because MFLs were compulsory to 16 until last year.
MFLs are the only subject area to record a consistent decline in GCSE entries, say Assembly statistics. In 2004, 32 per cent of GCSE students entered at least one languages exam - down from 46 per cent in 1996. Less than a quarter of all 15-year-olds achieved an A*-C grade MFL in 2004, and only 17 per cent of boys. Three in five entries were from girls.
But pass rates for those taking MFLs have risen significantly as fewer but more able pupils study them. Entries resulting in A*-C grades rose from 57 per cent in 1996 to 77 per cent in 2004. Just over half of GCSE students took an MFL in Monmouthshire, compared to less than a fifth in Merthyr Tydfil. Anglicised Newport came second, with 47 per cent, but Welsh-speaking Anglesey was fourth, with 36 per cent.