SCOTTISH business leaders have backed calls for greater promotion of French in schools after it was revealed the number of pupils taking the language at Higher fell sharply this year.

Figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) showed a 9.6% decline in the number of French Higher pupils in 2013 compared to the previous year, down from 4688 to 4236. The decline follows long-term trends in some modern languages, with numbers also falling in German.

David Lonsdale, assistant director of CBI Scotland, stressed the importance of the French language to the Scottish economy.

The Scottish Government's global connections survey, published in January, found exports to France increased by £430 million in 2011 and are now estimated to be worth £1.9 billion, making it Scotland's third top export destination.

He said: "France remains a significant market for Scottish goods and services, and if staff in Scottish firms can communicate at least conversationally - combined with an understanding of the local culture - it can make all the difference."

Sarah Breslin, director of Scotland's National Centre for Languages at Strathclyde University, has called for a campaign raising awareness of the importance of French as a global language.

The demise of languages has been blamed on the fact many schools no longer see them as compulsory, despite school inspectors calling for them to be a "core element" in the first three years of secondary. In addition, two-thirds of local authorities have scrapped foreign language assistants in the wake of cuts, although some are now reinstating them.

There have also been problems in primary studies, with three-quarters of schools missing recommended targets for modern educational language delivery.

Last year, a report by the Scottish Government's Languages Working Group said a decline in language learning at Scottish schools and universities was costing the economy at least half a billion pounds every year.