Too few schools are teaching Mandarin Chinese, hampering young people's prospects and putting the UK economy at risk, it was suggested today.
The British Council raised concerns that the number of schools offering the language is "stagnant at best".
Just three per cent of primary-school teachers say that their school offers Mandarin lessons, along with nine per cent of secondary teachers, according to a survey commissioned by the British Council and HSBC.
The poll, which questioned more than 800 teachers, found that, overall, six per cent of schools teach the subject and 91 per cent do not.
Two per cent of those questioned said that their school used to offer it, but have stopped, and a further one per cent said they were planning to start Mandarin classes.
The survey suggests that the number of schools who are beginning to teach the language is dropping off.
Some 29 per cent of those who said that their school provided Mandarin lessons said they had started teaching it between three and four years ago.
About a third (34 per cent) said they had started offering the classes between one and two years ago. Just five per cent said that their school had started teaching the subject less than a year ago.
Last year, 2,541 students sat GCSE Mandarin Chinese, according to official figures. This was up by about 400 on 2011, but down from 3,650 in 2010.
In comparison, 72,606 students took GCSE Spanish last year, up from 66,021 the year before.
British Council chief executive Martin Davidson said: "The UK's future prosperity depends in no small part on our ability to communicate and build relationships with people from around the world, and there are few more important partners for us than China.
"But, despite perceptions that more and more UK schools are teaching Mandarin, all the evidence suggests that the real number is stagnant at best and far too small.
"Without a workforce that can understand and communicate effectively with one of the world's biggest economies, there's a real risk that the UK will struggle to compete and fall behind as a result."
Ministers announced plans last year to make foreign languages compulsory from the age of seven, with schools potentially offering lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek as well as Spanish, German and French.
Last summer's A-level results sparked fresh fears of a crisis in modern languages, with concerns raised by exam chiefs that entries for the subject are at risk of "going into freefall".
The number of grades awarded in French was down 5.2 per cent in 2012 compared to 2011, and 13.6 per cent since 2007, while German saw a 7.6 per cent drop, 24.3 per cent since 2007. Spanish entries have fallen 3.4 per cent from 2011 but increased overall by 5.8 per cent since 2007.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of exam board AQA, said the drop in the number of people taking A-levels in traditional modern foreign languages was "a real worry".
The results did show an increase in take-up of Mandarin, with 3,425 entries, compared to 3,237 in 2011.
The YouGov poll questioned 832 teachers between September 21 and 27 last year.Reuse content