CHILDREN as young as eight could be taught a foreign language at school if ministers succumb to pressure from a high-level inquiry team.
The Nuffield Inquiry, co-chaired by Trevor McDonald, the ITN newsreader, and Sir John Boyd, Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, is expected to recommend languages are introduced into primary schools.
Attempts to teach young children French were virtually abandoned in the 1970s, but the study on the state of the nation's language skills is expected to recommend that at the very least juniors should be introduced to a foreign language.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has already been asked to investigate the feasibility of putting languages on the primary timetable. This followed a statement made by Prime Minister Tony Blair last December that the Government was "seriously considering" language teaching for older primary children.
The Department for Education and Employment estimates that around a quarter of primary children have some language teaching, mainly through out-of-school clubs, but there is parental pressure for more. Most independent schools teach languages from the age of eight.
However, ministers would have to tackle the scarcity of skilled teachers as secondaries find it difficult to recruit language specialists.
According to Do Coyle, lecturer in modern languages teachereducation at Nottingham University, the Government would have to provide training for teachers and ensure schools had the resources.
"There is a general view that the nation's linguistic capacity falls behind that of other European countries and earlier awareness would be beneficial. It is also important to make sure it is done in a creative way and does not replicate language teaching in secondary schools," she said.
A study carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research in the late 1960s helped to convince policy-makers that languages did not need to be taught to young children. The NFER found that primary children taught French did no better at secondary level than others with no language tuition before the age of 11.
Eric Hawkins, an academic involved in preparing school materials for the 1960s trial, believes that experience shows the importance of children being taught an awareness of language.
"I would not advocate simply introducing the teaching of French for eight-year-olds. Children need to be prepared for learning a language. That requires training the ear to discriminate sounds and an opening of minds to the excitement of learning a language," he said.
From September education action zones can apply for DFEE funding to introduce primary languages, while Lambeth, in south London, which has many residents with a Portuguese background, intends to start teaching the language in five schools.