A high-powered action group is likely to order a review of 5-14 guidelines and Standard grade courses and advise secondary specialists to brush up their skills. Many are failing to keep pace with research on language learning.
HMI's study of languages over the past four years shows that the quality of teaching and courses in the first four years of secondary has actually declined, despite the national focus on learning a foreign language. Only 5 per cent of departments are said to be turning in excellent standards.
Serious shortcomings in Standard grade courses, once famously labelled "crap" by pupils in a study by Stirling University, are matched by similar failings in the first two years of secondary where teachers are lambasted for ignoring 5-14 curriculum guidelines.
A quarter of secondary departments are running courses that are unsatisfactory or show major weaknesses.
The only satisfactory area is in fifth and sixth year where teachers are working with the more able pupils. But ministers are concerned that only 11 per cent of S5 pupils take a modern language and that many departments have to have catch-up lessons because of earlier failings.
Primary fares no better and inspectors admit the introduction of modern language teaching into the top two years has so far been a failure. This is the second time in 30 years that language teaching has flopped in primaries.
The report is believed to call for "searching questions" to be asked about attainment at all levels. In primary, only around half of schools produce acceptably high standards. In four out of 10, liaison with secondary colleagues is poor.
The inspectors found some pupils in the first year of secondary studying a different language from the one they learnt in primary. Some secondary staff also failed to adapt their teaching to pupils' previous learning.
At Standard grade, attainment is questionable in 60 per cent of schools and courses are condemned for an emphasis on speaking. Reading and writing are underplayed.
In secondary, specialists often fail to understand the principles and methods of language teaching; few departments have revised their courses to dovetail with 5-14 work; and a number use commercial materials not easily adapted for the Scottish curriculum.
HMI accepts initiatives since the 1980s have failed to deliver, including compulsory modern languages in secondary, the phasing of languages in primary 6 and primary 7, and the trend towards a language other than French.
On the positive side, pupils have been willing to try another language and parents are still keen for them to start in primary. Many teachers show skill in working with a wide range of abilities.
The findings are based on inspections carried out in 108 secondary schools and 42 primaries.
Meanwhile, Renfrewshire has backed the call for ending compulsory modern language learning in secondary up to fourth year. A Standard grade course in European studies or a Higher Still unit may better suit many pupils in third and fourth year, it says.