The District of Columbia public schools, which just three years ago declared foreign language instruction a "luxury" for a system whose students regularly score low on national achievement tests, has taken an about face and become the only school system in the Washington area to require all its high school students to take a foreign language.

The school system has also begun videotaped language lessons in 12 elementary schools, and encouraged teachers at all levels to experiment with any kind of foreign language, creating an often joyful babble of hundreds of young tongues throughout the city.

At Backus Junior High in the Michigan Park section of Northeast Washington, principal Edmund Millard and students exchange greetings each morning in Japanese. Ninth graders in the Friendship Learning Center in the Washington Highlands section of Southeast challenge each other to see who can name the most Spanish words. And at Janney Elementary near Tenley Circle in upper Northwest, sixth-graders converse in French with Pierre and (Nicole, a pair of fuzzy-haired puppets on a videotaped French lesson.

The new high school requirement -- at least one year of foreign language -- began this fall and applies to all students who graduate in 1984 and beyond. Along with the additional language courses in the elementary schools, it is part of an effort to upgrade standards in a system long criticized for its low standardized test scores, for graduating youths who can barely read and for failing to address the educational desires of many middle-class parents and those with gifted children who have deserted the system in the past.

But the re-emphasis on foreign language has revived two arguments fundamental to American education, and raised questions as to whether Washington is ahead of its time or simply out of step with reality.

More than a decade ago, educators abandoned the age-old notion that any kind of foreign language -- including "dead" ones like Latin -- was good for students. Mandatory foreign Language was shunted aside in favor of academic freedom of more pragmatic courses. But most public colleges, which many city high school graduates attend, do not require foreign languages for either admission or graduation.

Moreoever, the foreign language requirement appears to be a departure from the back-to-basics philosphy emphasizing reading, writing and arithmetic, an approach adopted by school officials on grounds that the most pressing need of students in the city school system was achieving basic survival skills.

Numerous efforts toward a more multilateral approach -- such as a proposal for a citywide academic high school -- have been clouded in controversy and rapped with accusations of elitism, in a city whose residents still recall a "track" system of public operated to the detriment of the black and the poor.

"We are not doing this just to prepare people to go to college . . . The value of taking a language does not just come in learning the language, but in the exposure you get to the culture of that country, what you learn about the people of that country. It's a broadening experience," said School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed.

Reed insists the chronic under-achiever, the youth not likely to go to college or ever need to speak a work in French, is not being unnecessarily burdened with the new requirement.

He said for these students, school officials are drawing up a general language course that will stress conversation, vocabularly and the culture of the country, instead of drilling students in such intricacies as the past subjunctive mood in Spanish and the "past definitive" tense used only in French literature.

"Left to their own devices, many students would not take the hard, more sophisticated courses," Reed said. "That's why we're now requiring them to take more math and science, as well. Most kids would just as soon elect to take another year of physical education, another year of art -- and that's why Johnny can't read."

The public schools offer instruction in French, Spanish, Latin, Italian and German. School officials argue that foreign language instruction will actually strengthen a student's knowlege of English grammar.

They also say, it may help students who continue with the language to get a job in a city which is becoming more and more cosmopolitan. "If you're going to work in a French restaurant," said Julia La Roche, director of languages for the D.C. schools system, "you ought to be able to pronounce coq au vin."

Reed acknowleged that one year of a foreign language will not make students conversant. But, he said, it will "whet their appetites . . . make them aware that there are other languages besides English.

Some students and teachers merely see the new high school requirement as a passport to massive failures.

"Based on our (standardized) test scores, I would assume many of our youngsters are going to have a problem, "said Clemmie Strayhorn, principal of Spingarn High School in a mixed middle- and low-income neighborhood on Benning Road in Northeast.

"It's going to be tough for me," said John Jethro, a freshman at Calvin Coolidge High School in upper Northwest. "I took Spanish in junior high and got straight F's.

Valerie Boswell, a ninth-grader at Backus said, "I don't see why we have to take it. It should be an elective. It's going to be hard for people who don't know English too good."

Another Backus ninth-grader, Raun Taylor, said, "Most people don't need it (foreign language instruction) unless they're going somewhere, like on their honeymoon or something and even then they could use a (language) phrase book."

Nonetheless, a number of ninth-graders across the city reacted with enthusiasm to the new requirement.

At Friendship, students recently went enthusiastically through a litany of "Que dia es hoy? Que tiempo es? And Que hora es?" (What day is it? What's the weather? What time is it?) with their Puerto Ricanborn teacher Daisy Camacho.

At one point, Camacho held up an orange paper and asked a student what color it was in Spanish. "Es an . . . an . . ." the students repeated with hesitancy.

"Anaranjado, "Camacho finished for him.

But when she held up a black sheet of paper, the class shouted out immediately in unison, "Negro!" the Spanish word for black.

"They always get that one," Camacho said as the students, who are all black, laughed.

"I think you should be required to take (a foreign language). I don't want to speak one language, like English," said Wallace Wilson, a student at Hart Junior High in Anacostia, who said his mother is from Puerto Rico. "If you know another language, you might be able to help a foreign person who's in trouble," he added."

"I just think we should take it. Lot's of foreigners know our languages, so why shouldn't we study theirs?" asked Andre Butler, another Hart ninth-grader.

Asked what he thought of the new foreign language requirement, Rabaut Junior High Student Anthony Rice rattled off, "uno, dos, tres . . ." -- his numbers in Spanish and said he had already studied Spanish three years.

"I like taking Spanish because now when I watch 'I Love Lucy,' I know what Ricky's saying," said Crystal Fennel, a student at Backus.

The Japanese program at Buckus is unique in the school system -- the brainchild of principal Edmund Millard who has studied and traveled extensively in Japan.

Millard said he also intends to have students saying basic conversational phrases to one another in French and Spanish as well before the end of the year. He said he decided to start up the program after he heard some Buckus students ridiculing a Hispanic girl who was speaking to her mother in Spanish one day over the phone at school.

He decided to start the program with Japanese because the series Shogun, where Japanese was spoken, was appearing on TV this fall and he thought that would spark students' interest in his program.

Some national foreign language experts have praised the District's move to revive foreign language instruction in the elementary schools and to require it in the high schools. "There's a lot of talk at many institutions of higher learning about the readoption of a foreign language requirement. That's uncontestable," said Dr. Peter A. Eddy, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.

When Harvard University recently revived its list of required courses and created a new core cirriculum -- one which educators there believe contains the courses every educated person should have studied -- a foreign language requirement was included.

The University of California at Berkeley has gone back to requiring two years of foreign language for admission and an additional year for graduation.

About 65 percent of D.C. public school students go on to college. Many go to the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University, which do not require a foreign language for admission.

But UDC does require at least two semesters for its bachelor of arts degree and Howard requires two years for all students in the College of Liberal Arts.

"It would help greatly for the youngster to have studied a foreign language in high school" before fulfilling the college requirement, said Lisle Carter Jr., UDC president.

Many foreign language experts say that the one year the District is requiring will have little lasting value for the students. Ann Beusch, coordinator of the foreign language curriculum for all Maryland high schools said, "You can't accomplish much in (even) two years. If we ever required a language in Maryland, we would want to require three years."

The state education office in Maryland, which set the high school requirements for all high schools in the state, did away with requiring a foreign language when it did away with the "academic diploma," a few years back. Now all Maryland students receive the same diploma, whether they take mostly academic courses or not. And languages are electives.

Eddy, of the Center for Applied Linguistics, said some language requirment is better than none. "The fact is that some students are going to be drawn into the class, they're going to like what they see and this may motivate them to go on in their study of the languageto travel aborad, or to just communicate with people they might not otherwise have tried to communicate with," he said.

He added, though, "I have to say (one year) is not the amount of foreign language instruction I would want my child to have."