There has been a "marked decline" in the number of students studying modern languages, according to a report for the government.
Ofsted reported a fall in languages in secondary schools
The number of language undergraduates at English universities fell by 15% between 1998 and 2002, the report says.
Language courses are becoming concentrated in fewer institutions. Academics are critical of the government's national strategy on languages, says the study from the University Council of Modern Languages.
The report says academics view the policy - as far as higher education is concerned - as just "warm words".
It calls for action to halt the decline in the popularity of languages. The report says the government should declare some languages as subjects of strategic importance.
And universities should have to give a year's notice of any plans to close a language department.
Last September the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke said he wanted a "national debate" on whether certain key subjects should be protected in the national interest.
He said he was asking Cabinet colleagues to come up with ideas for which subjects would need extra support.
The Conservatives have said they would offer £2,000 bursaries for students who want to study languages, maths or science.
The Liberal Democrats have complained that languages are becoming "an endangered species" in universities.
The study said the government's decision to make languages non-compulsory for pupils over 14 was having an adverse effect.
Last autumn, England's schools watchdog, Ofsted, reported a fall in the number of teenagers studying languages at school.
Fewer students are choosing to take only modern languages at university, the report said. The trend was to take languages with another subject, business studies being one of the most popular.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Our national languages strategy emphasises the importance of encouraging students in higher education to take an active part in learning modern foreign languages and this report will help to inform the development of the department's strategy towards achieving this aim.
"This report shows that overall interest in languages is strong, with a growth in language learning outside the main language degrees and as many as 20,000 students taking languages as part of a non-languages degree.
"In addition, according to the Higher Education Statistical Agency, there are 120,000 higher education students learning languages to some extent in higher education institutions."
The study found the biggest decline in language provision had been at the newer universities and that language study was becoming increasingly concentrated in the older universities and among students from more affluent backgrounds.
The Russell Group of universities - which includes Oxford and Cambridge - had 46% of all the language undergraduates.