Mr Stephen has sought to end the confusion over the "entitlement" to learn a language against the backdrop of the greater curricular freedom heads now have to match courses to pupil interests.
Some heads, with council backing, have taken the ending of compulsory languages beyond S2 as the green light for removing languages from the middle school curriculum for many pupils. But Mr Stephen has cautioned against overreaction and any large-scale switch from conventional patterns, as England and Wales begin to emulate the Scottish path of ending compulsion beyond the age of 14.
In a carefully worded letter to authorities, Mr Stephen stresses that inspectors will be monitoring developments to ensure "almost all pupils" meet the terms of the entitlement. Schools that veer from the traditional pattern - still enshrined in regulation - will have to show they explained to pupils and parents the benefits of language learning, while proving the benefits of alternatives for those who opt out.
Inspectors "will judge on their merits all instances of curricular variation from national guidelines, including foreign languages", Mr Stephen states.
He adds: "In practice, I would expect to see all elements of the entitlement available to all pupils in all schools, from at least P6."
Recent advice sets the Languages for All policy in a "contemporary context reflecting the greater use of flexible and innovative curriculum design and delivery".
At the same time, local authorities will be asked to spell out how they are improving language learning with the additional investment ministers are pumping in - pound;2.5 million this financial year and pound;4 million for each of the next two years. An extra pound;700,000, controlled by the Scottish Executive, is available for innovative projects over the next two years.
John Mulgrew, director of education in East Ayrshire, whose initial report led to the change to an entitlement, welcomed the restatement of languages'
importance and place in the secondary curriculum.
"It is a helpful clarification because I am anxious to ensure that whatever happens is taken forward in a planned and sensitive way. The action group on languages was not recommending there be an immediate migration from languages," Mr Mulgrew said.
Any switch to more language learning in primary would require greater teacher skills and curriculum support. "The central message is hold steady," he said.