Language learning could become a required subject in the overhaul of the English curriculum.
Mike Tomlinson says league tables may become unworkable
Mike Tomlinson, who is reviewing the curriculum for 14 to 19 years olds, says employers want youngsters with language skills.
Languages could be part of other vocational subjects - and might not lead to formal exams.
Mr Tomlinson says when it comes to learning languages the British are "barbarians".
Speaking in Cambridge at the summer conference of the Association of Colleges, Mr Tomlinson also suggested that the proposed reforms could make it difficult to continue with the present exam league tables.
Mr Tomlinson says students could study in a number of different
locations - such as school, college or in a vocational setting - making it difficult for any one establishment to be held accountable for an individual student's achievement.
Although declining to say that league tables should be scrapped, he raised the possibility of groups of schools and colleges being collectively assessed.
The higher profile for languages could come within the "main learning" part of the proposed curriculum - in which chosen subjects are studied in addition to the "core" subjects, such as English and maths.
These extra subjects are intended to be optional - but Mr Tomlinson says there are arguments for "required" units, perhaps as part of other subjects.
He says business leaders have called for improved modern languages - and that employers in the health sector want students to have community languages, such as Urdu.
Mr Tomlinson, who was outlining the latest thinking on reform, rather than the finished report, also pointed to opportunities for much more "e-assessment" in exams.
In the longer term, he says that this could mean "assessment on demand", rather than having exams at set times of the year.
The wide-ranging review, commissioned by the government, will also be watched closely by the universities - which use exam results for their own admission systems.
A problem faced by universities has been that so many students are now getting the top grades - and Mr Tomlinson suggested that the diploma could show the scores in individual units within a subject.
As an example, he said that although a quarter of students might have
achieved an A grade in an A-level - only about one in 20 will have scored an A in every individual unit.
Another consideration for Mr Tomlinson will be how such changes will be
received by parents and employers - and he says that an important aspect of the final report will be to make sure that the language is as accessible as possible.
He wants off-putting education jargon to be minimised - and as an example, has begun talking about students having "functional" levels of literacy and maths, rather using terms such as "Level 2".
In vocational education, a key part in retaining the interest of disaffected teenagers, he says he wants to move away from the confusing "alphabet soup" of qualifications.
Also addressing the conference of college principals was writer and social commentator, Will Hutton.
Mr Hutton said that there were pressing economic arguments for upgrading and increasing funding for the further education sector.
If Britain and Europe were to compete with economies in the United States and Asia, it was vital to develop a skilled and well-educated workforce.
And he argued that Britain had suffered from an education system that was obsessed with the achievements of the relatively small number of high-flying students at the most prestigious universities.
He said that this "pre-occupation with Russell Group universities and the A-level 'gold standard'" was at the expense of the wider economy, which suffered from a lack of well-educated workers.