The University Council of Modern Languages is pressing for financial help for universities to counteract the negative impact variable fees are expected to have on the numbers of students choosing to study languages.
The council will lobby the Higher Education Funding Council for England to cover the fees for language students' third year abroad in an attempt to make four-year language degrees at least as financially appealing as three-year degrees.
The number of students taking modern foreign languages, such as French and German, is in decline.
Language students will be more vulnerable than those taking other subjects when variable fees are introduced in 2006, according to Roger Woods, chair of UCML, which represents academics in modern languages.
If Hefce compensated universities through its funding formula, they could refrain from charging language students up to £1,500, half the maximum amount from 2006, for the year they spend abroad.
Professor Woods said: "Hefce is taking action on the less widely taught languages, and this is very welcome, but now is not the time to feel relaxed about the number of students going in for Western European languages.
"Given the shortage in the UK of language teachers and graduates with high-level language skills and overseas work experience, it would make sense for Hefce to give all categories of language students some real encouragement by funding universities so that they do not have to charge their students for this crucial year abroad."
Modern languages was added to the list of strategically important subjects the Department for Education and Skills asked Hefce to look into. It reported in June, with ideas such as research centres and financial help for doctoral students.
According to Professor Woods, the statistics given by Hefce's advisory group on strategically important subjects mask the dramatic decline in numbers taking French and German.
"Our record on both fronts is pretty dismal, and the fact that the Hefce advisory group has included not just so-called minority languages but all modern foreign languages in its list of strategically important and vulnerable subjects reflects the grim reality of the situation," he said.
"This clears the path for some concerted action from the languages community, Hefce and the DFES. I'm going to press this and see what support there is. It's important to push ahead on modern languages with Hefce in the run-up to the introduction of variable fees to try to make the year abroad more attractive financially."
At present, students on Erasmus or Socrates exchange schemes with universities in the European Union do not pay fees. However, those exchanging with non-EU countries and those on work placements or working as teaching assistants pay half the full-time fee.
"Language students go abroad and develop precisely the language skills the country needs," said Professor Woods."They often come back from a work experience placement with an interest in teaching."
Sean Mackney, head of learning and teaching at Hefce, said: "We want to guard against making supply-side interventions to what are essentially demand-side problems. But we can take action to support that where appropriate."