Loudoun County school officials Tuesday took the first step toward rejuvenating a long-delayed study of foreign language programs in elementary schools.

School Board members Candyce P. Cassell (Sugarland Run) and Susan N. Hembach (Broad Run) were appointed to a new committee that will develop a proposal to expand foreign language study to the school district's youngest students.

Teachers, administrators and parents also have been asked to serve on the panel, which will begin meeting next month, said Betty Mar Little, the district's foreign languages supervisor. Its members are expected to exchange ideas, meet with consultants, observe elementary language programs in other districts and attend conferences before presenting a plan to the School Board in June.

Loudoun now offers instruction in Spanish, French, German and Latin to its middle and high school students.

For years, Loudoun school officials have said they wanted elementary school students to be taught a foreign language. But the board has been unable to finance a study of the proposal, saying that budget cuts by the county Board of Supervisors have prevented the district from creating new programs.

That changed last spring when School Board members sliced the operating budget of each department to finance the $25,000 study. Officials said the educational opportunities from starting foreign language in the early grades are too great to ignore.

"That's when kids learn best," said board Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles).

Studies have found that young children can acquire near-native accents and pick up new languages much quicker than teenagers and adults, Little said. Learning one language early also could allow some students to try another foreign language by the time they reach high school, she said.

About 31 percent of public and private elementary schools offer foreign language study, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit organization in Washington that studies foreign language and culture. Several schools in Arlington and Fairfax counties already have elementary foreign language programs, and parents in Loudoun have asked school officials for them.

"Even if they can just offer it to fourth and fifth grade, that would be good," said Jane Pallister, whose fifth-grader attends Evergreen Mill Elementary School in Leesburg.

Also Tuesday, the School Board voted unanimously to add a new language to the middle and high school curriculum--American Sign Language.

Loudoun eventually will offer three consecutive years of study in the dominant language of the deaf, which is spoken through a visual series of symbols and gestures. Classes will begin in the 2000-2001 school year.

Only seven high schools in Fairfax County now offer three years of American Sign Language; no neighboring district offers the classes to middle school students.

Little said American Sign Language will be included in the study of an elementary foreign language program.