A nationwide survey due to be published next week will highlight the strains caused by a lack of national and local policy and support for primary language teaching.
The survey, conducted by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, will show that foreign languages are now taught in around one in four maintained primary schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but largely without support from a local authority.
The results of the CILT research, based on questionnaires returned by 42 per cent of LEAs and covering 8,800 primary schools, will be published at the Language World conference in York next weekend. The figures do not cover Scotland, where a national pilot scheme for primary languages has been running since 1989 and is being extended to a large number of schools.
The CILT research shows that while in some areas of the rest of the UK primary languages have taken off and in some areas it is well funded by local authorities, in most areas provision is extremely patchy and unco-ordinated.
LEA advisers taking part in the survey expressed concern about the effects this would have on progression and continuity in secondary schools and on the prospects for attempts to diversify secondary language away from French into German, Spanish and other languages.
The rapid but ad hoc growth of primary language courses - most have been introduced in the past five years, mainly inspired by parental pressure - means that in many secondary schools language teachers are having to cope with teaching courses to pupils with widely differing levels and types of experience in language learning.
Within LEAs percentages of schools where there is some language provision ranged from 1.9 per cent to 86 per cent. And within the providing schools themselves the method of provision, the starting age of the pupils taught and the duration of the language lessons varied greatly.
European awareness and language awareness were the most popular approaches, but these were found only in respectively 29 per cent and 18 per cent of primary language courses, duration of lessons varied from 10 to 120 minutes a week, in one case in the same LEA. As one adviser commented: "If there are n primary schools offering a foreign language, then there are n different ways in which it is organised."
This problem is compounded by the lack of co-ordination between primary and secondary schools to ensure continuity between the two. CILT found that in 43 per cent of LEAs where languages are offered there was no official liaison between secondaries and their feeder schools. In one LEA 95 per cent of schools carried out no liaison activity at all.
This is an issue close to the heart of Education Secretary Gillian Shephard. She said: "I know a lot about this because it was my job at one stage, setting up primary French schemes. What I know is that it's superb if it is well done. But only if the secondary school takes the children at the standard they are and doesn't say they will have to start from square one - in which case you would turn everybody off.
"The pre-requisite is you have to have secondary schools and all the primary feeders working together. Otherwise you waste the children's and teacher's energy and enthusiasm and you risk turning them off. So you have to have a tight organisation."
Another serious concern raised by local advisers in the CILT survey was the domination of French which is taught in 26 times more classes than any other language. It dominates to a far greater extent at this level than in secondary schools, taking up 94 per cent of primary language lessons, compared with its two-thirds share of GCSE entrants.
The survey will show that German and Spanish, the two main languages taught as an alternative to French in secondary schools, take up respectively only 3.6 per cent and 1.8 per cent of primary classes.
The temptation for secondary schools anxious for a good position in the league tables and struggling to fund a spread of languages may be to concentrate on the language that Year 7 entrants have already been learning at primary school. To date the TES has learned of only three secondary schools that have followed this path, but the situation will fuel arguments for support for diversification at primary level.
The impact support can make is demonstrated by the success of Italian, which is the third most taught language in the sample, ahead of Spanish with 3.1 per cent. It has been backed in communities where there is a strong Italian presence by the Italian Consulate, which has provided funding for teachers.
In many schools the impetus for introducing languages has come from parents and this interest is reflected in a significant expansion in private out-of-school activities and franchising operations such as language clubs.
A number of advisers said they were very keen to expand primary provision and some were seeking Lingua funding, sponsorship and other funding for centralised resources within their LEA.
Dr Elidir King, director of CILT, said the survey shows primary languages will remain a big issue in the 1990s and requires an approach that balances support with caution.
"Caution because the resources issue is likely to need long-term solutions and we cannot afford another setback. Support because the desire for early language learning is almost self-evidently justifiable. It is there and it is growing. "
The CILT survey includes detailed statistics and information on the scale and nature of provision, staffing and training, progression and continuity into secondary schools, and comments from advisers. It will be available at the Language World conference at the University of York, March 31-April 3 and thereafter from CILT.
How to start up primary courses; and a critical look at the aims of primary language teaching, page VI o CILT offers information on methodology and resources in primary language teaching, specialist publications and regional support through its Comenius Centres. For more information contact CILT, 20 Bedfordbury, London WC2N 4LB, tel: 0171 379 5101.