Concerns that Birmingham's place in the global market could be under threat have been raised in the wake of a five per cent slump in the uptake of language GCSEs this year.

Questions were raised that pupils in Birmingham could be missing out on "vital skills", after new figures revealed that for the first time less than half of pupils took a language in the city this year. The new alert comes as language department heads at Britain's top universities called on the Government to reverse a decision allowing pupils to drop language study at 14.

Entries for languages have fallen by a quarter in Birmingham since the Government removed the mandatory requirement two years ago.

In 2002, there were 8,614 GCSE entries in languages. By last year the number had fallen to 6,151 entries, meaning 51 per cent of the cohort took at least one language. This year, the number of entries fell to 5,887, with only 46 per cent of 16-year-olds taking a GCSE in a language.

Liberal Democrat shadow Education Secretary, Sarah Teather, warned: "Birmingham cannot hope to be competitive in the world if the next generation of local school children are missing out on these vital skills.

"Students on the continent are becoming fluent in three or four languages. The Government needs to redouble its efforts to get specialist language teachers into schools and reignite pupils' passion for these subjects."

There was a two per cent drop in the proportion of pupils taking French to 24 per cent in Birmingham.

Only nine per cent of the year group took German, compared to 11 per cent in 2005. In Spanish, the proportion was down one per cent on last year to four per cent. Uptake in Urdu – the native language of a large proportion of the city's Asian community – was up one per cent to six per cent.

But the proportion of youngsters studying the remaining languages of Bengali, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Latin and Portuguese was below one per cent in each case.

Only 30 pupils did Chinese, despite warnings of the country's growing global and economic importance in the world.

Two months ago a Birmingham City Council scrutiny report raised concern over a "collapse" of language teaching in Birmingham.

The review found in a "small percentage of schools" no language teaching was taking place at key stage four – the age range for GCSEs.

Government policy introduced this September states there should be a "clear expectation" that schools involve at least half of key stage four pupils in language study.

Both primary and secondary schools in Birmingham are being targeted by education chiefs in a bid to develop a new strategy for language learning.

A study last year found half of the city's secondaries had "significantly" cut provision to pupils and evidence of an exodus of language teachers from schools that had no intention of replacing them.

The study by the local education authority claimed reduced uptake could be down to schools steering pupils to "easier" subjects to boost their league table positions.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson ordered a review into languages in October.

Some speculate it may lead to an overturn of former education secretary and ex-Birmingham MP Estelle Morris's ending of mandatory teaching of languages at GCSE level.