French, German and Spanish are becoming increasingly elitist subjects, with only the most able Welsh students pursuing language studies at GCSE and A-level, experts fear.
But they claim the apparently inexorable decline in take-up of modern foreign languages (MFLs) may finally be bottoming out. New statistics published this week show A-level entries have remained static at around 1,300 for the past three years, and the rate of decline in GCSE entries has slowed.
But the figures still make grim reading. Last year, only 31 per cent of all 15-year-olds took at least one MFL GCSE, compared to 46 per cent in 1996.
In England, where entries have also declined since the subject area was made optional at age 14, the 2005 figure was 59 per cent.
MFLs is the only subject area in Wales to have fewer entries in 2005 than in 1992. Over the same period, Welsh language GCSE entries have grown 68 per cent, and arts and sport by 65 per cent.
But while fewer young people are pursuing languages, those that do tend to be the most able - and are getting ever better results. The pass rate at grades A*-C increased from 57 per cent in 1996 to 78 per cent last year, and this summer a third of French A-level entries resulted in A-grades.
Analyses carried out by the WJEC, the Welsh exams board, confirm that most A-level French students already have a clutch of A and A* GCSEs in other subjects to their credit. Kristina Hedges, language teaching adviser with CILT Cymru, the national centre for languages in Wales, said it had serious concerns that languages were becoming "elitist".
A CILT survey in England showed languages were becoming marginalised in schools in the most deprived areas, and there are concerns the same thing is happening in Wales. "The more able pupils are continuing to see the need for languages," she said. "But nowhere else in Europe do they see languages as only for the 'clever' ones.
"If you are a footballer or a lorry driver or work in a hotel, you are going to need languages. But we have a vocational course called leisure and tourism which does not include a language module."
But based on CILT Cymru's work with secondary schools across Wales, she is more optimistic about the future. More than half of those schools report a rise in the number of 14-year-olds opting for GCSE languages.
"In the schools we are getting to, things are turning around."
An Assembly government spokesperson said: "We are committed to improving opportunities for the study of MFLs. Through our strategy Languages Count and investment (pound;700,000 a year) we aim to show schools, parents and pupils, as well as employers, the importance of languages."
Modern foreign languages in schools in Wales 2005, www.new.wales.gov.uk