The term multilingual relates to the presence and interaction of more than one language in a geographical region, political entity, or similar entity. Accordingly, a multilingual person is an individual who is fluent in more than one language.
Multilingualism has, of course, existed since the beginning of time. The Rosetta Stone evidences the fact that multilingual documents have existed for thousands of years. The famous Rosetta Stone itself is more than 2000 years old and carries inscriptions in 3 languages – Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. Following its discovery in 1799, the Greek and Demotic translations of the hieroglyphics allowed researchers to unlock the language of the ancient Egyptians.
Even though, multilingual documents existed since the beginning of writing, it is only in January of 1838 that the word “multilingual” appeared in English for the first time, and, believe it or not, with negative connotations. Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country published a book review that opened with a Shakespeare quotation: “He hath been at a feast of languages, and hath carried of the scraps.” In the following article the reviewer concludes that “the art of multilingual quotation is no mark of reading.” The author of the reviewed book wanted to show how clever he was by quoting repeated in foreign languages.
Fortunately times have changed. Today, multilingualism predominantly carries a positive connotation and translates into real life economic advantages. A recent study concluded that those Americans who speak at least two languages will, on average, earn some USD 3,000 more per year than those who only speak one language. At the same time, a Swiss study entitled Economics of the Multilingual Workplace (Grin, Sfreddo, Vaillancourt) found that a variety of positive economic and social factors are directly related to the multilingual ability of Swiss citizens – including Switzerland’s GDP. Switzerland currently has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh).
In our increasingly globalized world, multilingualism is becoming both norm and necessity. In Germany, for instance, more than 50% of all German companies are held by non-German shareholders. Their annual reports have to be published in English and German, at the very least. In France, similarly, all of the annual reports of the top 40 companies are written in English and only 38 in French. It is fair to say that with the incredible amount of multilingual translations produced every day we have now entered the age of multilingualism.