LEARNING a foreign language can improve mental agility, researchers have found.

Tests carried out on modern language students found they were quicker at switching their attention between tasks compared to a group studying humanities.

Academics from Edinburgh University who conducted the study said the results confirmed the cognitive benefits of learning in general and language learning in particular.

Dr Thomas Bak, from Edinburgh University's Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, said: "Our study demonstrates that learning languages is not only good for a person's career and social life, but also has beneficial effects on cognitive functions, which go well beyond the language itself."

The research builds on two previous studies which suggested that speaking a second language could improve thinking skills in later life and help delay the onset of dementia.

But whereas previous studies concentrated on ageing, the present one focused on young adults who started learning their second language at the university.

Researchers assessed different aspects of mental alertness, such as concentrating on certain sounds, switching between counting upwards and downwards, as well as the ability to produce different words.

They then compared the results of first year students - who had just started to learn a language - with those of fourth year students who had reached a higher level of proficiency.

The researchers found that students who learned a second language were better at switching attention to filter relevant information.

Students of humanities, who were investigated as a comparison group, had improved in letter fluency - the ability to produce words starting with a certain letter, but their improvement in attention switching was smaller than those of language students.

The study is published in the journal Cognition. The study authors, Thomas Bak, Mariana Vega-Mendoza and Antonella Sorace, are part of the team that make up Bilingualism Matters, a Centre at the university delivering evidence-based information about bilingualism and language learning.