In the heart of a country that is virtually illiterate in foreign languages, Georgetown University this week held an international round table on linguistics and the teaching of languages.

This is, in case you didn't know, National Foreign Language Week. And high time. In an era when 23 million among us don't speak English at home, when cities and suburbs sport Vietnamese-run restaurants, groceries and newsstands, when Japanese industries are moving bodily into our economy, when Arabs dictate our oil policies and buy our real estate, too many of us are scandalously ignorant of how the rest of the world speaks.

Some 10,000 English-speaking Japanese business people are at work in this country competing for our business. Thousands of Americans are doing the same thing in Japan--but fewer than 900 speak Japanese.

Our Foreign Service candidates aren't required to know a foreign language. Only 8 percent of our colleges and universities require one for entrance--20 years ago it was 34 percent--and few demand it for graduation. Even in high school, only one student in seven takes a foreign language; that drops to one in 100 in grammar school, where the learning comes easiest.See LANGUAGES, D3, Col. 1 LANGUAGES, From D1

But things are changing. Georgetown's $36 million Intercultural Center, dedicated just last fall, boasts the nation's first school of international relations and the university's School of Languages and Linguistics.

"There was a big surge in language learning in the '60s after Sputnik," said Jacquelyn Tanner, director of language learning technology, a 16-year veteran of the faculty. "But they overdid the technical aspect of training, they let the equipment take over. School boards thought they could just buy a language lab with tapes and earphones and drop the teachers."

A reaction followed, in which mechanical aids were looked down upon, and only now is the field working out a synthesis of these points of view.

"It's become more humanistic," she said. "The techniques are simplified, the teacher is back in control, and we are teaching cultural ways along with the languages. We use a lot of video to show how other peoples behave socially. Japanese soap operas. Portuguese game shows. Things like that."

Learning the ways of foreigners is almost as important as learning their words, she noted. Hand signals differ radically from country to country. Verbal customs can be a problem, too--one that works both ways. Shortly after Wernher von Braun and his fellow German rocket experts moved to Huntsville, Ala., to work for the Americans, they visited a local store. They bought some groceries and headed out the door.

"Y'all come back, now," sang out the proprietor. So they turned in their tracks and stalked back to the counter. It took some time for everyone to figure out what was happening.

Georgetown has more than 300 videotapes for its language students, teaching tapes in 43 languages and elaborate facilities, including electronic classrooms--the old walled-off desk units are passe' now; students must learn to listen despite distractions--and a superb auditorium featuring wireless translation boxes on which one can dial any of eight languages during a conference.

"One of our specialties is simultaneous translation training," said Tanner. "It started with tremendous impact at the Nuremberg trials, where it speeded things up so much that one of the Nazi bigwigs said it was costing him 10 years off his life. Then it came to the U.N. and then here."

David Bowen, a professor in the division of interpretation and translation, pointed out that students entering interpretation training must be able to understand at least one foreign language at a clip of 120 words per minute.

"We start them right out translating simultaneously, a few seconds behind the original," he said. "We don't moronify it, we go at normal speed. You've got to learn to hear your own voice over the other. It's think or thwim, so to speak. In the second term we really sock it to 'em with technical stuff. Names of the parts of atomic reactors. Horrible diseases. You have to have quite a vocabulary."

But, of course, the school covers a huge range, from the junketing official who wants to be able to make a toast in Arabic ("you can learn that on the plane going over") to professional people who expect to go overseas. Medical students regularly work in Haitian or Cuban refugee camps for a few months. Others spend many hours with immersion techniques at the various foreign-language houses and suites around the university.

They say that English will be the international language in another generation. That may be, but in the meantime it is good to know that some of us at least will understand what all those other people are saying about us.