Richard Hudson, emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London, described a "vicious circle" in a presentation to the Universities Council for Modern Languages this month. He said: "Language research in higher education language departments is very weak, which harms the teaching of languages in higher education, so graduates don't choose teaching careers, so school teaching is poor, so language degrees aren't popular."
Lord Dearing, who recently led a review of languages, has said that many pupils see languages as "difficult" and "boring". But Professor Hudson noted that English language was more popular at A level than English literature. He suggested that pupils' aversion to French and German, rather than being the result of a general dislike of languages, was due to poor teaching.
Applications to join French teacher training PGCE courses have dropped by one third since 2000.
"Schools teach language but little or no literature. But in many higher education courses, the dominant topics are cultural and literary. In short, higher education is not supporting schools in language learning," Professor Hudson said.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded 54 grants for research into French in 2006; only eight were for research into the French language. In the University of Cambridge's French department, five academics list French language as their research interest, compared with 28 who list cultural aspects.
The research council recognised the problem in 2005, Professor Hudson said, and ring-fenced six PhD studentships a year for linguistics of the major foreign languages. "In 2005, there were too few good applicants to fill them," he said.
Hilary Footitt, senior research fellow at the University of Reading, disagreed. She said: "I am more inclined to blame the situation on the context of a national languages strategy that has made languages optional (after the age of 14), rather than on the failure of universities to develop language research."
Mike Kelly, director of the University of Southampton's subject centre for languages and linguistics, said a key problem was that research into the teaching of languages "does not have a high status" and is often discouraged by departments.