The government has announced a review of its strategy on teaching modern foreign languages in England's schools.
Current policy puts more emphasis on languages in primary schools
There has been widespread concern since language learning was made optional past the age of 14 - triggering a rapid drop in the numbers taking GCSEs.
Education Secretary Alan Johnson said during education questions in the Commons that he shared the concern.
He had asked Lord Dearing to carry out a review. If it concluded the strategy was wrong the government would listen.
The decline in languages featured prominently in reporting of year's GCSE results.
Entries in German were down by 14.2% while French declined by 13.2%.
Mr Johnson said in the Commons: "The drop cannot be right. We have to do something about it."
He said of Lord Dearing's review: "If the noble lord says to us, this strategy is wrong and we should go into reverse, then we will listen to that advice and we will do that."
However, he also said: "We want languages to flourish. Forcing 14 to 16-year-olds to learn a language, I don't think will achieve that objective."
The Conservatives are seeking to amend the current education bill to restore the element of compulsion, arguing that language skills are vital for the country to compete globally.
But John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders - who has described language study as being in "freefall" - said compulsion would not work.
"Returning to a compulsory GCSE is not feasible in the short term and, more importantly, it does not address the fundamental issue," he said.
"The majority of 14-year-olds do not want to take a foreign language. The content of the curriculum must be made more practically focused and relevant to students' career choices."
The Department for Education and Skills said Lord Dearing would work with its national director of languages, Dr Lid King.
Their terms of reference would examine "scope for action" in five areas:
Mr Johnson said: "We are committed to encouraging young people to embrace languages whilst recognising they should be offered flexibility in what they study to inspire them to continue learning."
- supporting secondary schools in providing more flexible language courses - even if youngsters did not take GCSE exams
- further strengthening incentives for schools and young people to continue with languages after 14
- working with further and higher education on widening language learning among their students
- working with employer organisations to consider what more they could do to promote the value of language skills
- how to get across the importance of language skills to people in general.
Lord Dearing has been asked to deliver an interim report before Christmas, and his final report by the end of February.
He said: "As with my work on the review of the national curriculum, I will start from scratch, wanting above all to listen and learn.
"I believe the answers to the questions we have about the recent decline in modern languages are out there in the education community and it is my job to find them."
The director of Cilt (the National Centre for Languages), Isabella Moore, said the review was welcome.
Cilt had a substantial body of evidence on both the supply and demand for languages and looked forward to working with Lord Dearing on this important issue, she said.