The Government has ordered a review of its controversial decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14- to 16-year-olds.
The move follows an avalanche of evidence that it has had a catastrophic effect, with thousands of pupils dropping the subject at GCSE and A-level.
The decision was revealed by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, as he was fielding questions after a lecture to the Social Market Foundation think-tank in London yesterday.
He said that ministers were "wondering" whether they had made the right decision, adding: "We're just having another rethink about that."
There was an immediate welcome for the news from teachers' leaders and language experts.
Isabella Moore, director of CILT, the National Centre for Languages, said she "would support any move to strengthen the status of language learning in the post-14 curriculum".
"As this year's GCSE results show, the numbers of students enjoying the various benefits of language learning is falling." She said Mr Johnson was "quite rightly concerned about the linguistic capability of our young people, who will need language skills to compete in the local jobs market".
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described the news as "excellent". He said: "The importance of modern languages can't be stressed too strongly and the decision to stop it as a compulsory subject at 14 has resulted in the major decline we saw in the subject at GCSE this year. We're delighted he has listened to the advice of those who care about education."
This year's GCSE results showed an alarming drop in the number of candidates studying the subject - French fell by 13.2 per cent since last year to 236,189 entrants and German went down by 14.2 per cent to 90,311. Even Spanish, which has shown a rise in recent years, fell by 0.5 per cent to 62,143. This follows years of decline - the take-up of French has almost halved in a decade.
The original decision to make the subject voluntary, announced in 2002, caused an outcry - not only from teachers' leaders and linguists but also from the ambassadors from several European countries.
In an interview with The Independent, the ambassadors to London from Germany, Spain and Italy - backed in his absence by the French envoy - spoke of the "sad situation" surrounding languages in the UK.
They were speaking as news leaked that ministers were considering letting children drop the subject at 14 - and were hoping to persuade the Government to change its mind.
They failed - but in the four years since taking the decision ministers have privately admitted they were taken by surprise by the numbers that have dropped the subject.
Research shows that the impact of the decision has been to turn languages into a subject for the elite.
The evidence collated by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching showed two-thirds of state schools had dropped compulsory language teaching - while 97 per cent of independent schools still insisted it should be compulsory up until the age of 16.
Ministers have tried to revive the subject in primary schools to compensate for their decision - insisting that every child should have the right to learn a language from the age of seven by the end of the decade.
For the first time, they have recruited specialist language teachers to teach in primary schools.
However, yesterday's revelation by Mr Johnson is an indication that they are worried that this will not be enough to reverse the decline in secondary schools.
One option under consideration is that new specialist diplomas - to be piloted later this year - should include a compulsory element of language study. It is being argued that children who opt to study for a leisure and tourism qualification should be able to master a modern foreign language, for instance.
But headteachers are worried that - having shed languages staff and, in some cases, shut whole departments - it may be difficult to recruit enough qualified staff to revive the subject.Reuse content