TRAINEE primary teachers will be able to specialise in modern languages for the first time from September, as a grassroots movement to teach youngsters foreign tongues gathers pace.
Sixty-one places have been funded for French linguists at teacher training colleges in Newcastle, Southampton, Hull, Canterbury and Twickenham.
At the moment, only maths, science and English can be studied as a primary specialist subject.
A spokesman for the Teacher Training Agency said the success of the pilot could influence whether primary languages featured in the revised requirements for initial teacher training from 2002.About one in five primary schools currently offers some kind of language teaching.
A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority study by Warwick University, which is yet to be published, found that language provision was haphazard and heavily reliant on brought-in teachers and commercial ventures.
One of the greatest barriers to uptake is the lack of subject know-ledge and confidence among primary teachers.
The shortfall in expertise was pinpointed in the critical Nuffield Inquiry which called for the introduction of language learning from the age of seven. Language organisations accused the Government of failing to grasp the nettle in its response which ignored the call for statutory provision.
However, there is some evidence of an upsurge in grassroots interest, particularly since the launch of the European Year of Languages.
Louis Greenstock, from the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, claimed there was more support for primary schools than ever before.
He said: "In the past, language teaching might have depended on one enthusiastic and skilled member of staff and died away if that teacher moved on. Now it is being advocated by headteachers and local authorities and this is allowing languages to flourish."
Eighteen primary language projects, which ran out of funding this year, have been extended with an extra pound;200,000 from the DFES. Developing languages in primary schools is now one of the criteria secondary schools have to meet to achieve specialist language status.
The National Primary Trust is also planning advanced centres for modern languages which mirror the work it is already doing with bright children in maths and English.
But Steven Fawkes, president of the Association of Language Learning, said the Government still lacked a cohesive strategy. "There might be more support now but we are starting from a very low base. Primary schools need the time, funding, expertise and encouragement to get started in the first place."
* Go to www. tes.co.ukyour_subject for more modern foreign languages teaching ideas.