A strategic shake-up of modern language teaching in universities is urgently needed to stop further fragmentation, marginalisation and concentration of provision in elite institutions, warns a report.
The number of students taking languages at A level and as a specialist degree has slumped over the past five years. But this is counterbalanced by the subject's growing popularity at GCSE and AS level, and as an optional subject or combination degree, with disciplines such as business, English, law and history.
Mike Kelly and Diana Jones, authors of A New Landscape for Languages are urging educators and policy-makers to wake up to the switch from specialist to non-specialist interest if the government national strategy for languages, launched last December, is to succeed.
Professor Kelly, director of the UK Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, based at Southampton University, said: "The balance in demand for languages is shifting and unless we do something the UK will lose languages capability."
Many language departments are struggling, particularly in post-1992 universities, with closures and mergers. But university language centres that provide non-accredited courses for students and staff are booming.
Degree-level provision is becoming concentrated in fewer universities. The thinning of degree programmes has hit staffing, with growing dependence on part-timers and fixed contracts. It could also have a knock-on effect on the production of the next generation of language teachers.
A quarter of all language students study in just five universities. The most popular languages are French, German, Spanish and Chinese. A-level grades of entrants are higher than average.
"Anecdotal evidence points to the more popular universities enjoying a bumper intake in October 2002, while less favoured institutions are left struggling for students," the report, commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation Languages Programme, says.
Professor Kelly said that changes were unmanaged and that intervention was needed. "We must look hard facts in the face and not be overwhelmed by them," he said.
The report predicts several scenarios, all of which accept a widening gap in provision between specialist and non-specialist language studies. It makes 14 recommendations, including raising the public profile of language study; greater collaboration between universities, colleges, schools and the private sector; and reviewing the curriculum at A level, degree-level and in teacher training.
The report also calls for the introduction of new certification for casual learners, more inter-university projects, a funding review and the founding of an international languages observatory.