Bad experience at A level is a key reason why students are shunning language degrees, according to an Anglo-German Foundation report published this week.
Sixth-formers are put off by the jump in standard from GCSE to A level, which they believe is greater than in other subjects. Teachers compound the problem by telling students that languages will be even harder at degree level. Students are also unconvinced about the job opportunities a language degree offers. They complain that school careers advisers cite jobs, such as teaching, translating, working in the foreign service or abroad, that they find unappealing.
Many choose to combine languages with other disciplines to broaden their career options, believing employers will see an A level as sufficient evidence of language skills.
The survey will make dispiriting reading for university languages departments, battered by a steady decline in uptake of pure language degrees. It also casts doubt over the UK's ability to produce the language teachers needed in schools.
Hilary Footit, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said:
"It is vital that the government campaigns to inform careers advisers, young people and their parents about the benefits of learning languages.
Languages improve employment opportunities - the evidence on this is clear.
They are essential for the future international communicators, and we need these people in business, public services, diplomacy and so on."
The author of the report, Catherine Watts of Brighton University School of Languages, said that despite extensive press coverage about the UK's linguistic decline, there had been little study of why students were turning away from degrees.
Her findings are based on interviews and questionnaires in Sussex with A-level students at a state and a private school, first-year undergraduates with the grades to study a foreign language at degree level but who have chosen not to, and the heads of modern languages in two schools and two universities.