Languages are not compulsory in the UK at the end of secondary schooling
A GCSE in a foreign language should be a compulsory requirement for a place at university, the British Academy argues.
The academy says more must be done to encourage young people to develop language skills.
In a report on languages and research, it says poor language skills prevent the UK remaining a "world-class hub of research" and damage the economy.
A seminar to discuss the report is being attended by England's Higher Education Minister David Lammy.
The British Academy report, Language Matters, assesses what impact a decline in modern language skills is having on the UK as a research base.
The report says a lack of language skills means UK researchers are less able to compete with their counterparts overseas.
"In a world of research that is global, these serious shortcomings and deficits undermine the government's objective of positioning the UK as a hub of international research," it says.
The academy praises the decision by University College London to require all undergraduates from 2012 to have a GCSE or equivalent qualification in a modern language.
Students unable to fulfil this requirement will be required to take at least a half-course unit in a foreign language as part of their degree.
"We believe that other universities should follow this example," the British Academy report says.
"It would encourage those pupils who intend to go to university, but would otherwise have been deterred from language study, to take up language learning.
"And it sends a powerful message to schools about the importance universities place on language learning."
A spokesman for England's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said: "GCSE and A-level entry requirements for admission to individual courses is for each university to decide in line with their admissions policies."
Decline in languages
Language learning has been in decline for several years.
The British Academy report notes that in 2001, 22% of pupils in England did not take a GCSE in a language - by 2008, this rose to 56%.
The report said the government's decision in 2004 to make languages optional for pupils in England from the age of 14 only exacerbated the decline.
It warned that A-level language entries had declined by 28% between 1996 and 2007.
The loss of A-level candidates had led to a decline in the number of students taking language degrees, resulting in the closure of as many as a third of university language departments in seven years, the report said.
In Northern Ireland, a revised curriculum introduced in 2007 compels pupils to study a language in the first three years of secondary education but not at GCSE level.
Pupils in Wales are also allowed to drop languages for Key Stage 4 (the GCSE years).
Languages have not been compulsory in Scotland's schools since 2001.
However, schools are expected to offer pupils the chance to study a modern language no later than Primary 6 (the penultimate year of primary school) until the end of Secondary 3 (14 and 15-year-olds).
The government has set a target of all primary school pupils in England getting a chance to study a foreign language by 2010.
This, it is hoped, will enthuse children and eventually improve GCSE entries.