By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter
Fewer secondary school pupils are studying languages
The UK will be held back as it seeks to emerge from recession unless it boosts the number of language graduates, campaigners say.
The National Centre for Languages (Cilt) points to a worrying decline in the take-up of modern languages.
It wants languages to be treated as strategically significant subjects in the same way that science and maths have been championed.
The government said a review of modern languages was currently under way.
Cilt chief executive Kathryn Board said: "English is one of the great global languages but it will only take us so far.
"Our engagement with the non-English speaking world will remain superficial and one-sided unless we develop our capacity in other languages."
Recent research from Cardiff Business School suggests improving languages could add an extra £21bn to the UK economy and that export businesses that use language skills boost their sales by 45%.
Cilt's director of communications Teresa Tinsley said there was a lot of concern that not enough youngsters were taking languages in secondary schools through to university.
In 1997, 71% of England's GCSE pupils took a foreign language, last year the rate was down to 44%.
For the most popular foreign languages at GCSE, French and German, take-up declined in England by 45% and 46% respectively between 1997 and 2008.
Whilst at university, the share of home UK students taking modern languages has fallen by 4% since 2002.
This happened against an 4.5% increase in the overall numbers of students. Cilt says this decline comes after an even bigger fall in language student numbers in the 1990s.
Ms Tinsley said: "We are going to be held back as a nation as we seek to emerge from the economic downturn or recession.
"Companies are looking to recruit people with language skills and if they can't find them amongst our home-grown graduates they will obviously bring in people from other countries to fill these gaps.
"We really need to buck up our ideas or we are going to be stuck in a mono-lingual world when everybody else is taking global opportunities."
The comments come as Cilt published its new agenda for languages calling on government departments and businesses to help safeguard their importance.
Language courses at some universities are struggling.
The University of the West of England is to stop courses in French, Spanish and Chinese this year because they received only 39 applicants.
And Queen's University Belfast is planning to close its German department.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said it recognised the value of learning a language for personal development and for people's future careers.
"This is why the government will make language teaching compulsory in primary schools from next year."
She said the government had expanded a scheme into a national programme encouraging universities and schools to work together to increase language take-up.
It was also working with the higher education funding council for England on their review of modern languages and strategically important and vulnerable subjects and would continue to do so.