For the first time ever, French has slipped out of the top 10 of the most popular subjects at GCSE – the most obvious sign of the seemingly inexorable slide in languages take-up in schools, which employers say will damage British students on the international jobs market.
Fewer than one in four youngsters (22.7 per cent) now sits French, with the numbers falling from 341,604 students in 2002 to 177,618. This year alone, there was a further 5.9 per cent fall. German has slumped from 130,976 to 70,619.
Last night, exam board leaders called for a summit with ministers to try to stem the decline. The figures, released as part of this year's GCSE results, led to Andrew Hall, the chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, to claim that yesterday was "a rather sad day for languages".
Overall, the picture to emerge from yesterday's GCSE results showed another rise in both the percentage getting A* or A grades (up one percentage point to 22.6 per cent) and A*- to C-grade passes (up two percentage points to 69.1 per cent).
The gap between the performance of girls and boys at A* and A*/A grade reached record levels (2.3 and 6 per cent respectively, in favour of the girls – up 0.1 and 0.3 percentage points respectively).
The figures also showed record numbers of pupils are taking the exam in English and maths a year early.
Figures showed the number of 15-year-olds sitting GCSEs had more than doubled since last year to 83,000 in maths and 69,000 in English.
One of the reasons is the decision to scrap national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds, which effectively acted as a barrier to students starting GCSE courses earlier.
Dr John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "I think schools are extending the most able students and moving them on to AS-levels in Year 11 (for 15- and 16-year-olds).
Some failing schools, though, are also putting their middle-ranking pupils in for exams a year early – in the belief that, if they fail, they can learn from their mistakes and pass the next year.
The picture to emerge from this year's results also showed a welcome boost in the take-up of separate science subjects – demanded by industry.
Biology was up 28.3 per cent to 129,464, chemistry 32.2 per cent to 121,988, and physics 32.1 per cent to 120,455.
This has come about as a result of an orchestrated campaign by business leaders and ministers to effect a switch to separate sciences from the over-arching science exam.
However, it was the decline in languages – described as a "freefall" by one exam board observer – that prompted most concern.
Language-learning experts urged ministers to think again about introducing "greater compulsion to learn languages beyond 14".
"There is a widespread consensus, shared by employers, educationists and politicians of all persuasions, that we are letting our young people down by allowing so many of them to opt out of language learning as early as 13 or 14," added a statement from the Centre for Information of Language Teaching, the national languages-learning resource centre.
Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said the take-up of languages was "inadequate to meet the needs of our universities, economy and society".
Ziggy Liaquat, the chief executive of Edexcel exam board, said: "It is disappointing seeing the decrease in languages in this set of results because clearly – as a nation – having strong languages is very, very important when operating in a global market.
"I think we feel quite strongly this is an area we should be having a conversation with the Government to see what can be done about it."
French has been replaced in the top 10 by religious education – which makes an appearance there for the first time with 188,704 students taking it. Nick McKemey, the Church of England's head of school improvements, said: "Young people are clamouring for a deeper understanding of religious perspectives on issues of the day and how moral and ethical questions are considered by the major faiths."
The only bright spark on the languages front is an increase in the take-up of Spanish – which, with 67,707 candidates, is poised to take over from German as the second-most popular language in schools.
The decline in languages began at the beginning of the decade and accelerated as a result of the Government's decision to make the subject voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds.
Labour attempted to revive the subject with plans to make it compulsory for all children in primary schools to study the subject from the age of seven.
However, the plans to introduce this from September 2011 fell when the legislation enabling the change was defeated in the run-up to the general election.
So far, the Coalition Government has not let it be known what would be put in its place.
However, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We intend to look at the position of languages within the curriculum as part of a curriculum review. We will announce more detailed plans in the autumn."
A five-year-old became the youngest person ever to pass a GCSE exam by registering a C-grade pass in maths.
Dee Alli, who signed up for the Excellence in Education programme in Southwark, south London, is also the best friend of Paula Imafidon who herself caused headlines previously by becoming the first person to pass an advanced maths exam at the age of nine.
"I treat maths as a game so I don't think of it as an exam," she explained.
Asked about her future, she said: "I want to be a princess living in a big house so I can count out my money."
Paralympics hopeful Jessica Harper was celebrating eight A* grades and two As yesterday. Jessica, a pupil at Putney High School in London, a girls' only private school, faced a gruelling schedule as she fitted in her training with exam work.
She spent 14 hours a week training for swimming, travelling for nine hours a week to sessions.
Jessica, who is on a scheme designed to nurture talent for the 2012 Olympics, said last night: "This year was extremely busy as I tried to balance my training with my studies while still trying to have a social life. I am very fortunate to have great support from my school, family and friends."
Aaniya and Shirin Ahmed
Twins Aaniya and Shirin Ahmed each gained 11 A* grades in identical subjects yesterday. The 16-year-olds, from Chelmsford County High School for Girls in Essex, plan to study the same A-level subjects. "We weren't predicted identical grades. Some of the predictions were As," said Aaniya. "But we both worked really hard. I think it probably helped that we were there to help each other." Shirin added: "We tend to like the same things and be good and bad at the same things. For example we're both bad at swimming and tennis but good at running."