The Welsh Assembly expressed concern last year about the low take-up of languages courses, believing that it will hamper Wales's long-term economic prospects. But its fears will be heightened by new statistics from Estyn, the Welsh inspection body, showing that the overall number of GCSE foreign languages candidates is continuing to plummet.
Five years ago, 55 per cent of Welsh 16-year-olds sat a languages GCSE. This year it dropped to 44 per cent, and next year it will be lower as only 42 per cent of Year 10 pupils are studying languages.
About 140 European-owned manufacturing companies now operate in Wales. But Rosemary Butler, the Assembly's education secretary, is worried that Wales will be unable to capitalise fully on these links unless young people's language skills improve.
Her officials are preparing a national strategy to encourage the study of language beyond 14, through improved teaching, making it more fun and stressing its relevance and benefits.
David Rosser, director of CBI Wales, said he welcomed such initiatives. "It is the marked drop in the overall number sitting languages GCSEs that is very worrying," he said.
Steffan James, Estyn's MFL inspector, said: "In some schools, a foreign language is compulsory at key stage 4. In others, while it is not compulsory, take-up is nevertheless high. But there are schools where take-up is as low as 10 per cent."
He added that the introduction of compulsory Welsh at key stage 4 was partly responsible for the fall in languages candidates. However, he stressed that there were other factors. A small minority of teachers believed that only more able pupils should take languages courses. In other schools it was timetabling clashes that made it difficult for pupils to study a foreign language.
Speaking up for languages, Wales 2000 supplement, page 15