British students are not alone in finding languages a turn-off. Most Spanish students have a barely adequate command of a foreign language and just over one in three takes advantage of his or her time at university to study one, according to a report by Barcelona's Autonomous University.
The study of 3,7 students and teaching and administrative staff at the UAB paints a gloomy picture. On the Council of Europe scale of 1-7 where 5 is a satisfactory level of linguistic proficiency, Spanish students score an average of 3.7 for their command of English, lecturers 4.7 and administrative staff 2.6.
This is in spite of the fact that 73 per cent of students have spent more than five years studying English at school. This shows that "the return on time invested is fairly low," according to the study.
Joan Melcion, director of Barcelona's modern language service and co-author of the study with Sonia Prats, says these findings are representative of Spanish universities in general.
He believes students "do not see foreign-language learning as a priority", although student workloads and the cost of classes are also factors.
Catalonia's regional government launched a plan to make proficiency in a foreign language obligatory for all first degrees three years ago. However, the initiative was shelved after a change of government in November 2003.
"In primary and secondary schools, languages are often taught as a linguistic structure and not much attention is given to using them," Mr Melcion says. He believes another reason for poor results stems from Spain's slowness in adopting new methods, for example, teaching subjects such as maths or geography in a foreign language.
Spanish students pay up to 30 per cent of the cost of degree courses as tuition fees, but they must cover the full cost for language classes.
Subsidised fees for all students studying languages at Catalonia's public universities would cost just over €6 million (£4.2 million) a year, Mr Melcion estimates. But if courses became cheaper, demand would probably rise, he says.