Fewer children take a GCSE language at comprehensives
The proportion of high-attaining pupils in the UK taking a GCSE language is in decline and making them non-compulsory is part of the problem, a report says.
Exam board Cambridge Assessment said 74% of bright pupils took a language GCSE in 2008 - down from 80% in 2000.
Since 2004 a language has not been compulsory at GCSE level, and applications for degrees are falling.
The government said making languages compulsory was not the answer - but starting them earlier was.
When the National Curriculum began in 1984, 94% of high-attaining pupils took a GCSE language and the proportion has been declining ever since, according to the research.
However, the pattern for all pupils is different: numbers of all pupils taking them rose to an all-time high in 1997 - with 82% of girls and 73% of boys sitting a GCSE.
But by 2008 these had dropped to 51% of all girls and 40% of all boys.
The report suggests that as well as making languages non-compulsory from the age of 14, languages could be losing out because the curriculum has diversified over recent years, meaning a greater choice of subjects.
French, German and Spanish continue to be the most popular language at GCSE level, but French and German are in decline.
The National Centre for Languages, CiLT, suggested in research published last year that higher-attaining pupils may be directed towards studying separate sciences instead.
In recent weeks, University of the West of England and Queen's University Belfast have cut language courses.
'No quick fix'
Cambridge Assessment placed pupils into three attainment groups using a points score for each student.
Pupils were ranked using a formula which involved adding up the total points each pupil achieved at GCSE level and dividing this score by the number of GCSEs they sat.
The report found that in 2007, grammar schools had the highest proportion of all students taking at least one language - 89%.
In independent schools the figure is 72% but in comprehensives it is just 33%.
Fewer numbers of GCSEs are taken in lower-performing school, the report found.
Author of the Cambridge Assessment study, Carmen L Vidal Rodeiro, said: "Such a big drop in the uptake of languages by high attainers was a surprise but not totally unforeseen.
"If students are not exposed to and have no prior knowledge of languages at key stage 3, how can we expect them to make an informed choice at GCSE?"
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "There is no quick fix to getting more children motivated and studying languages - and making it compulsory at GCSE level is not the answer.
"The bottom line is that the earlier you start learning a language the better.
"We're making it compulsory from seven to 14 to give pupils seven years to build up their knowledge, confidence and experience - backed by giving better training for teachers, more diverse qualifications and a more engaging curriculum."