More than a third of teenagers now give up on languages at the age of 14 following the Government's decision to make the subject optional in Year 10, a survey reveals.
The plunge in numbers studying languages has taken even ministers by surprise and created a growing sense of crisis among language teachers.
"This suggests there is going to be a generation of pupils without the language skills many of them will need in later life," said Teresa Tinsley, of Cilt, the National Centre for Languages."We already have the lowest level of language skills in Europe. Is this really what the country wants?"
Languages are now optional from Year 10 onward in seven out of 10 schools compared with just three out of 10 two years ago, responses from 807 English secondaries reveal. In those schools where the subjects are optional, six out of 10 Year 10 students have dropped languages.
Sharp falls in numbers opting for French and German in particular were expected following the Government's decision to make the subjects voluntary from this September. All schools are supposed to give pupils the option to study at least one language at key stage 4. But the survey found:
* Less-able pupils increasingly being advised not to opt for languages.
* Languages losing out when they are timetabled against popular vocational courses, including business studies.
* Languages being sidelined where schools are applying for specialist status in other subjects.
* In one secondary, languages offered only as an after-school option.
* In some secondaries, teachers deciding pupils' options for them.
Poorer pupils appear most affected by the changes: the drop-out is highest in schools with large proportions of pupils eligible for free meals and in secondaries with lower GCSE scores.
Languages were compulsory in 93 per cent of grammar schools, compared to 26 per cent of comprehensives, the survey by Cilt, the Association for Language Learning and the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association, found.
Ms Tinsley said heads had to take some of the blame. Under pressure to boost grades for league tables, some were effectively writing off languages which are perceived as too hard for less- able pupils.
School language departments around the country are feeling increasingly beleaguered.
One teacher said: "Languages have been downgraded." Another said: "We, as a department, feel we are fighting a losing battle."
GCSE and A-level entries for both French and German showed sharp drops this summer, and the survey results suggest further significant falls are inevitable.
Alarmed ministers are nowtrying to arrest the decline. This summer, Stephen Twigg, education junior minister, was forced to write to local authorities urging schools not to cut language classes.