Americans lag far behind their foreign competitors in knowledge of languages and geography, the nation's governors were told Saturday in a report that advocated having children start learning a foreign language as early as the first grade.

"International education is absolutely essential to American prosperity," said Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, chairman of the governors' Task Force on International Education.The task force report was made public at a news conference opening the annual midwinter meeting of the National Governors' Association.

With governors increasingly involved in promoting foreign trade, Democrat Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia, chairman of the NGA, set "America in Transition, The International Frontier," as the theme of the 1989 winter meeting.

"The international economy is something governors live with every day," said Baliles. "It is tangible and immediate."

The Virginia governor added that "the rules have changed; the conditions have shifted and the stakes are high in what we do next."

Kean, a Republican now in his last year in office, said, "International education is not really a priority now in most of our nation's schools."

He urged his fellow governors "to take the lead in creating international education programs" in their states.

The annual governors conference will lack a customary feature of the sessions - a White House meeting with the president.

President Bush will not return from his trip to Japan, China and South Korea in time to sit down with the governors, whose meeting ends on Tuesday.

While NGA meetings during President Reagan's eight years in office often reflected tension between the White House and governors over budget priorities, there was no sign of similar confrontation this year.

An Associated Press survey of governors found little enthusiasm for challenging Bush's resolve to resist new taxes as a means of reducing the budget deficit.

"I don't see how he can abandon his read my lips promise this early in the term," said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Clinton referred to Bush's campaign vow to resist any new taxes.