A language ladder will provide a way of recognising skills in a foreign language at almost any level from beginner to fluent speaker. The 14-point scale will complement qualifications such as GCSE and will be similar to music grades, which can be taken at any age.
The details are being worked out by a government working party. To scale the language ladder, learners are unlikely to have to take set tests, as they do in music.
One option is to allow teachers to devise their own assessment tasks, which would then be externally checked. Another idea is to have separate grades in reading, writing, speaking or listening. By 2010, the Government wants all children to have access to language classes from the age of seven.
The scale is seen as vital to helping secondary teachers cope as pupils arrive from primary schools with an increasingly wide range of experience of language learning.
Poor transition arrangements were partly to blame for the failure of a national primary French project in the 1970s.
Another way to overcome the difficulties of transition is for primary schools to teach general language skills, rather than focusing on any one language.
Baroness Ashton, education minister responsible for languages, told the Association for Language Learning conference: "What we are trying to build is the opportunity for every child to have access to one other European language. But we are not prescriptive about which one, because schools have teachers with different skills.
"At the moment, it is about opportunity for a child to explore language learning. We are not saying that if a child learns a particular language between 8 and 11, that is the language they will study forever. It is acquiring the skill of language learning which is the critical part for me."
The Government has asked local education authorities to bid for cash as "pathfinders" to trial different ways of teaching languages in primary schools: the successful bidders will be announced next week.