Secondary schools in England will be allowed to teach Mandarin or Arabic instead of EU languages as part of proposals to update the curriculum.
Part of the aim is to enthuse youngsters about their learning
Climate change, slavery and healthy cooking also feature in a shake-up of what 11 to 14-year-olds should study.
Ministers asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to review Key Stage 3 to focus on essentials and make time for personalised learning.
The resulting plan is to be published in full for consultation on Monday.
Youngsters will continue to study all 12 national curriculum subjects.
The QCA's remit was to revise the programmes of study - the areas covered in each subject - for teaching from September 2008.
It was asked to remove any overlaps - for example, control systems were in both design technology and information and communication technology.
And it was asked to cut the amount of "detailed prescription" and what the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) calls "over-factual information".
At the moment schools have to teach a major EU language.
The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, has said he believes it is right to vary this to add languages which might be economically useful or help community cohesion.
So schools would be able to teach not just subjects like French, German and Spanish, but Mandarin, Urdu and Arabic as well.
"Young people need to be aware that languages can make you attractive to employers - and more employable," he said.
"We need to raise our game in languages in schools if we are to compete in an increasingly globalised economy."
The change is in line with proposals from Lord Dearing, who was asked to investigate the collapse of language study in secondary schools that followed the government's decision to make it optional after the age of 14.
No 'dumbing down'
In geography, the DfES says teachers will have greater opportunities to bring in "topical issues relevant to young people's lives".
So they might learn more about global warming, sustainable development and global poverty.
The department stressed there would be no "dumbing down" - core geographical skills and knowledge would be protected.
"Ministers want to enthuse children about subjects like geography, while keeping alive traditional virtues of academic excellence," a spokesperson said.
In history, all 11-14-year-olds would for the first time have to study the British slave trade.
They would find out about reformers such as William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, and how the anti-slavery movement led to later campaigns and civil rights movements.
Other changes include a new emphasis on "essential life skills" such as practical cooking.
Mr Johnson sees this as another weapon in the fight against obesity.
"I want kids rolling their sleeves up and actually getting to grips with preparing simple healthy meals from scratch," he said.
Ministers have also insisted a list of classic authors be retained in English.