The revelation in an Association for Language Learning survey that nearly 30 per cent of schools plan to abandon compulsory languages from September will reinforce fears that the subject is in terminal decline.
Earlier this year, the German, Italian and Spanish ambassadors to Britain expressed concern at proposals in the 14 - 19 Green Paper which would make British schools the only ones in Europe where pupils can drop languages at 14.
Schools have seized on ministers' readiness to make foreign languages optional. Many are jumping the gun and effectively "killing off" language learning, the survey says. Others will offer it only as a token hour a week which does not equip pupils to take GCSE.
The association's findings fly in the face of ministers' claims that most pupils will continue to take a GCSE language course.
In one Sheffield secondary where inspectors rated the language department one of the best in the school, the subject will now be optional. Out of a year group of 300 teenagers, just eight have chosen to do French and 16 to study German.
Sir Trevor McDonald, the veteran broadcaster who chaired the Nuffield languages inquiry, said: "If schools are making languages optional from this September, as the evidence suggests, then we should all be very concerned. Whichever career path children choose to follow, they are going to need the skills that make them employable in a world where recruitment is increasingly global, where flexibility and mobility are at a premium."
Baroness Onora O'Neill, chair of the Nuffield Foundation and principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, said the Government's proposal was an "astonishingly retrograde step".
She said: "Schools are guessing which way it is going to go and jumping the gun. Even if the consultation leads to second thoughts, the blight will have set in. The whole cycle of sixth-form study and teacher training will be badly damaged."
The survey of nearly 300 teachers found time devoted to languages was being slashed. In one school, pupils who wanted to study for more than one hour a week had to choose the subject as an option. Only 17 pupils out of a group of 180 opted to do French.
Terry Lamb, ALL president, said: "The evidence suggests that hundreds of schools are going down this route. Morale in language departments is at absolute rockbottom. Classes will be struggling to survive."
Government plans to offer primary pupils an "entitlement" to languages have also been criticised as a "half-hearted fudge" to deflect criticism from the post-14 proposal. Design and technology teachers say their lessons are being treated with the same disregard, even though, at present, they are also statutory in England.
The Design and Technology Association has reported several schools to the Office for Standards in Education without success.
The chief inspector's report this year said schools increasingly failed to meet the statutory requirement. More than two-fifths of schools were breaking the rules in at least one subject.
Since design and technology was made optional in Wales in 1995, the proportion of pupils taking the course has dropped to an average of 23 per cent.
James Dyson, the inventor said: "Design and technology is as essential a part of education as the ability to read and do arithmatic."
The proportion of pupils taking modern foreign languages GCSEs in Wales dropped from 49 per cent in 1995 to 39 per cent in 2000. Welsh education minister Jane Davidson today launched a strategy called "Languages Count" to arrest the decline by setting targets.