Parliament has called on the government to amend the constitution to ensure that Switzerland's national languages are given priority in the nation's schools. The initiative's backers denied the move was a "declaration of war" against the teaching of English.
The House of Representatives narrowly in favour of the initiative on Thursday. It demands that the first foreign language taught in Swiss schools be one of the country's national languages, and not a foreign tongue such as English.
The initiative, put forward by the French-speaking Social Democrat parliamentarian, Didier Berberat, comes amid increasing controversy over the teaching of English in Swiss schools.
The debate heated up last August, when German-speaking canton Zurich announced that, from 2003, its schools would be free to teach English, instead of French, as their first foreign language at primary level.
Not surprisingly, the head of Zurich's education board, Ernst Buschor, was not happy about Thursday's parliamentary vote. "I must say that I'm not amused," Buschor told swissinfo. "I am convinced, however, that although we may have lost the battle, we will win the war. And a linguistical war is a thing we should avoid."
Opponents say the introduction of English at the expense of a national language undermines the cohesion between Switzerland's language regions and threatens cultural diversity - sentiments echoed by Berberat.
The initiative scraped through the House of Representatives with a majority of just five votes. Some of those who voted against it were concerned that it sent out the wrong signal.
"English is becoming 'the' European language - whether we like it or not," said Jacques Neirynck, a French-speaking parliamentarian from canton Vaud. "It is a good choice because it is a simple language and gives a lot of opportunity to young people."
The vote also sparked concerns because it was seen as giving the federal government a licence to intervene on an issue which has always been the preserve of the cantons.
Neirynck told swissinfo: "When the local community wants to have this or that language as the first [foreign] language, the federal government should not interfere."
However, the cantons are split on the issue. A meeting of cantonal educational directors last November was almost evenly divided on whether English should be allowed as a first foreign language.
Thursday's vote means the issue is now likely to go to a referendum.
swissinfo with agencies