Like most people I know, I studied a foreign language in high school, but I have had so little opportunity to speak it since then that I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. I feel a little guilty about this, especially since bilingualism is such a valued skill today. Whenever I hear policy makers or media personalities talk about the benefits of learning a second language in school, they often cite the need to produce adults that can compete in an increasingly globalized economy. As it turns out, learning a second language does more than fulfill this economic necessity; it has a profound effect on the brain that extends from early childhood to old age.

The New York Times gathers the results of a number of recent studies on the cognitive skills of bilinguals and monolinguals to reveal some surprising discoveries. Bilinguals consistently perform better than monolinguals at mental puzzles and tasks that require concentration, planning, and quickly switching attention from one thing to another. Not only does it take bilinguals less time to complete these mental challenges, they use less of their brain while doing so—indicating that their brains are more efficient. I was also surprised to learn that knowing two languages produces long-term effects as well. A recent study has revealed that the bilingual brain is considerably more resistant to the onset of dementia in old age.

Knowing a second language has more than practical value—it contributes to academic and intellectual development in significant, long-lasting ways. This means it is important that foreign language classes and materials are available for students of all ages.

I still have my Spanish dictionary and am hoping to take another foreign language class in the near future. Until then I’ll just have to hope that I retained some of those cognitive abilities from my high school Spanish class.