In a sunny classroom at the Marie H. Reed elementary school in Adams-Morgan this month, five young girls wearing colorful kimonos danced in a circle to Japanese folk music.

What looked to a visitor like curtseys and sailor's salutes turned out to be the movements of a traditional Japanese coal miner's dance; the dancers were digging and shading their eyes from the moon.

The girls, whose ages ranged from 9 to 12, were doing more than learning Japanese culture; they were part of a six-week program that taught 100 District schoolchildren the basics of the Japanese and Chinese languages this summer.

The pilot program was the result of combined efforts by the Friends of International Education, a nonprofit corporation devoted to promoting nonwestern languages, the D.C. public schools and Berlitz language instructors.

Dorothy Goodman, chairwoman of the Friends of International Education, said she hopes that if those two languages can be established as a part of the curriculum at Reed, Backus Junior High School and Dunbar High School, then Arabic and Russian can be added to the program.

"I believe that these languages are the vital areas for the future," Goodman said, referring to world economic and diplomatic interests of the United States.

If the program continues to receive funding, the students who begin learning those languages at Reed can continue their studies at Backus, and then at Dunbar.

This summer's stint was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as other government and private donations. Officials estimate the cost of continuing the program through the school year at $200,000 to $250,000.

One of the pupils participating in the program this summer, 10-year-old Carol Mendoza, came to this country from Nicaragua when she was 4. She said English was "hard," but added, "I had always wanted to learn Japanese . . . . I liked their dances and the way they ate and everything."

Backus Principal Edmund Millard, who usually spends summers in Japan studying the language and history, said, "Can you imagine the potential of a child taking this through {his} whole school career?

"We are taking them beyond 'awareness' {of another culture}," he said. "Youngsters need to be able to function in an international arena."

At Reed, the Japanese and Chinese classes share a room decorated with paper lanterns and travel posters. One wall has a sign that reads: "Japanese -- the language of the future." With only a six-foot partition separating them, the pupils reciting lessons sometimes compete to be heard.

The languages are taught by native speakers and Americans. One of the Japanese instructors is Toyoko Miwa, 27, a graduate student in linguistics at American University. During a break in the lesson, she praised the flexibility of the American school system.

"In Japan, it would be much harder to arrange a program like this," she said. "I'm glad that these children are learning my country's language."

Polly Juen, who teaches Chinese, moved here from Nanking seven years ago. She graduated from Peking University and taught there, but spoke almost no English when she came here. She said the program "is good for me, too, because I get to practice my English."

Rodney Allen, 12, whose name in Chinese means "good luck" and "gentle," has learned to write and speak his name in Chinese. Students in his class must draw the characters that represent their names at the top of every lesson sheet.

The classes are not just the repetition and memorization most people associate with learning a foreign language. Besides such cultural activities as dancing, the students demonstrate a practical application of the language by playing "store." Using paper cutouts of toys, fruit, candy and clothes, the children sell the items to one another using play money, with the exchange transacted in Japanese.

"Educators and principals are not in a position to require another language," Goodman said. "Therefore, you have to be extremely creative to attract students."

The program culminated in a picnic at Mount Vernon College, where 20 Japanese teen-agers studied English this summer in the "Berlitz Jr." program.

After a karate demonstration and conversation skits, the American and Japanese students shared a classic American meal of hot dogs, barbecue and baked beans.

Unfazed by the steamy 98-degree weather, the two groups mingled somewhat shyly, practiced what they had learned and at the end could confidently shout "Sayonara!"

Ellen Nollman, one of the American "model" teachers, believes the experiment has been a success.

"I was very fortunate to be in a pilot program such as this when I was younger, so I know the importance of sticking with a language," she said. "It would be a real shame if we can't continue."