FOREIGN languages will be introduced into primary schools by 2012 but pupils will not have to study them - unlike anywhere else in the European Union.
The Government tried to emphasise its commitment to languages, despite the announcement this week that they will cease to be compulsory from 14 . Ministers admitted plans depend on recruiting more language teachers.
This week, the ambassadors of Germany, Spain, Italy and France called for action to improve language teaching in Britain. They said they could not organise school exchanges and Britain was losing contracts because of poor language skills. Germany and France have just decided to make language teaching mandatory from the age of seven.
Terry Lamb, president of the Association for Language Learning, said: "We would like a foreign language to be a compulsory part of the national curriculum. We would like to see progression through to secondary school."
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "I want it to be compulsory. If they are serious about modern languages they have to invest from the age of seven onwards."
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman confirmed that not every primary school will have to provide a foreign language.
She said: "We are not going to saddle primary teachers with teaching French and German if they don't know it.
"We have to look at creative ways of providing languages, it might be through assistants, more training, providing specialists from outside the school.
"It doesn't have to mean every single school providing languages, there can be clusters of schools using the resources of a specialist language school, there may be opportunities for children to go to a different place to learn."
In the 1960s a trial of languages in primaries was abandoned after it was found pupils who started French at eight did not perform noticeably better by 16, than pupils who had had a later start. One of the problems highlighted was a lack of consistent provision.
The Nuffield Languages Inquiry, published 21 months ago, warned that primary languages should be part of a coherent national strategy. But teacher unions have backed the Government's circumspect approach.
"We are in favour of languages in primary schools," said a National Union of Teachers spokeswoman. "But there is no point making it compulsory if we haven't got the teachers."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "If we are going to get British people up to the standards that exist in some countries, then we have to start in primary school. But it would be a burden to push it into primary schools without adjustment. They have to put in additional resources including staff."