Which Language Should You Learn to Break Into Investment Banking?
Ever feel that you’re spending too much time on useless tasks?
It’s a common problem.
And it’s one reason why I’ve written so much about what to avoid when recruiting.
I’ve warned that the CFA and other degrees and certifications can be massive time sinks, but language study could easily fall into this category as well.
The last time I looked at the “Which language should you study?” question, I gave a non-answer and said, “Improve your communication skills in English.”
While that advice is still true today, it’s not universally true.
There are some cases where you can gain a recruiting advantage from proficiency in another language.
So I’m going to cover those cases here, and then give a real, specific answer on the most useful language for finance roles (hint: Spanish).
What *Hasn’t* Changed?
In the original version of this article, I made the point that language study is mostly useless for recruiting purposes unless you reach a very high (near-native) level.
Passing a “proficiency exam” with 90% of the answers correct doesn’t mean much because you can’t give a client 10% incorrect information.
It will be almost impossible to reach a level where you can “speed read” in another language, but you often need to do that in IB/PE roles (when reading information memoranda, for example).
Also, most banks outside the Anglosphere greatly prefer to hire native speakers of the local language who are also proficient in English.
Just ask anyone from a Western country who wanted to “study Mandarin” and then “go work in China.” Oops.
So assuming you already speak English proficiently, you are usually better off combining language study with a study-abroad experience and using it as your “interesting fact” in interviews instead.
So What Has Changed?
But there have been a few changes over the years, which prompted me to write this article.
So if you are not a native speaker or you haven’t been learning from a very young age, you will benefit the most by improving your English skills.
Another change is that emerging markets haven’t lived up to their promise.
Back in 2005 or 2010, people argued that the importance of other languages would increase because thousands of new banks and finance firms would spring up in Brazil, China, Russia, India, and other places.
But that hasn’t exactly happened if you look at 2015 M&A deal activity by region (Source: Dealogic):
China has performed better than the others (hence the rise in Asia ex-Japan deal activity), but most of these places still have relatively small financial markets.
Finally, it is becoming less feasible to master another language even as a university student.
You now need a series of internships to have a good shot at a penultimate-year internship that leads to a return offer, so it’s not realistic to spend two summers studying abroad and then suddenly get into investment banking.
This Question is Mostly About Your Age and Region
Before answering the question of which language is most useful, you need to reframe the question:
Are you at an age and in a region where another language could be useful without taking an inordinate amount of time?
The last part is essential because if you want to win finance job offers, many tasks are more useful and less time-consuming than studying another language:
- Getting a great internship.
- Mastering accounting and financial modeling.
- Contacting 20 alumni to set up informational interviews.
- Transferring to a university with better on-campus recruiting.
- And yes, even passing Level I of the CFA. Maybe.
But age and region also matter.
If you’re already about to graduate from university, or you’re well beyond university, there’s no point in learning a language to boost your recruiting chances.
You won’t have the time or motivation to reach the required proficiency level, and your work experience will matter a lot more than other skills at that point.
Similarly, you won’t gain a huge advantage if you’re planning to live and work in the U.S. because most deals are domestic and require nothing besides English.
So you gain the biggest advantage from another language if:
- You’re young – you’re not even in university, or you just started.
- You’re planning to live or work in London (or should this now be “Europe”?) or another region where knowledge of other languages can significantly boost your chances.
Outside of Europe, other languages probably help the most in Latin America.
In Asia, most markets tend to favor local candidates who are native speakers; I’ve heard very few stories of readers learning East/Southeast Asian languages and then using them to win offers.
How Do You Judge the “Usefulness” of a Language?
Given the constraints above, the list of languages useful for recruiting purposes is different from the “general purpose” list.
Here are the criteria I used:
Point #1: How Long Does It Take to Learn/Master?
If one language takes 500 hours to learn and another takes 2,000 hours, it’s really hard to make the case for the 2,000-hour one in today’s recruiting environment.
So all else being equal, it makes more sense to study languages that are closer to English.
People often claim that grammatical similarities explain the ease or difficulty of other languages, but I believe vocabulary is the biggest factor: if 75% of the words are similar to words you already know, memorization time drops substantially.
Point #2: How Widespread is the Language, and How “Necessary” Is It?
You can’t just look at a list of languages by the number of speakers worldwide and go by that because some languages are used in only 1-2 countries (Mandarin, Japanese…).
By contrast, it would be almost impossible to live and work in some places, such as Latin America, without knowledge of the local languages.
Point #3: How Many Qualified Native Speakers Are Competing with You for Jobs?
Firms almost always prefer to hire local candidates, but in some regions, it’s more pronounced than in others.
Sometimes the “supply and demand” of candidates are way out of balance, making it much easier for you (Mexico) or much harder (China).
You’re much better off going to markets with rising, unmet demand for candidates rather than ones that are flooded with them.
The Rankings, Please
Based on this criteria, Spanish is the clear winner for the most useful language.
- It’s almost certainly the easiest language to learn if you already know English.
- It’s useful in Latin America, the U.S. (see: Miami or LA), and Europe.
- You need it in Spanish-speaking countries (personal experience!).
- It’s more plausible to win offers as a foreigner in, say, Mexico than it is in countries like France, Germany, or Russia. Click here for a good example of such a story.
So if you satisfy the criteria above, you want to study something to boost your chances, and you’re not sure what to pick, you have my top recommendation.
And Second Place Goes to…
You could make a solid case for almost anything else in the top 10-15 languages, but my “rankings” would go something like this:
Yeah, Brazil isn’t doing so well lately, but it is still the biggest economy in Latin America and the biggest market for investment banking there.
Portuguese has many of the same advantages as Spanish: it’s fairly close to English (though a bit more difficult than Spanish), it’s essential if you spend any amount of time in Brazil, and at times in the past there have been imbalances in the talent demand/supply.
However, I would still give the edge to Spanish because it’s more widespread and more useful in the U.S. and Europe.
German, French, or Italian
These are the most useful languages if you plan to work in Europe, and they’re all more similar to English than Asian or Middle Eastern languages.
However, I’ve seen little evidence of foreigners learning one of these languages, going to the country in question, and then winning job offers there.
Ironically, these languages probably help you the most if you’re from the U.K., you want to work in London, and you need something to compete with continental Europeans applying for IB roles there.
One example is this story from a U.K.-based reader who was “fluent” (though not native) in one of these languages and used it to win an IB offer as part of a larger cold-emailing effort.
While a large population in Russia and the FSU speaks this language, deal activity is limited, and there are few banks and PE firms relative to the size of the economy.
It would be close to impossible to win an IB job offer in Russia as a foreigner, especially in the current economic environment.
Plus, the language is harder to learn than anything above, and I’m not sure it would give you as much of an edge in London.
Japanese is more difficult than any of the European languages, and it’s only useful in Japan.
But Japan is still a big market, with more M&A deal volume than all of Latin America combined, and 10% of the total in Europe and 10% of the total in the rest of Asia.
Furthermore, some firms now want to hire more foreigners because of the shrinking population and the relative lack of English-speaking staff.
I’ve also seen friends and acquaintances learn Japanese to varying proficiency levels and then win finance roles in the country (though not in anything writing-intensive).
Yes, China has the second-biggest economy in the world, and there’s a ton of deal activity there.
Yes, you absolutely need to know Mandarin if you spend any time in China.
But it’s almost impossible to work there as a foreigner when there are tons of Chinese students who are native speakers, studied at top universities in Western countries, and now want to go back home to work.
Even if you spend years mastering Mandarin, you have about a 0.001% chance of being selected over a native speaker.
The problem here is that English is widely used for business in the Middle East, and you could easily get by in a place like Dubai without knowing “the official language” at all.
Arabic is widely spoken in Africa and the Middle East, but many of these countries do not have large financial markets.
So, what about Hindi, Bengali, Panjabi, Urdu, and various other Indian and Southeast Asian languages?
The problem is that the financial services market in India is surprisingly small next to the massive population, and companies use English for business anyway.
In Southeast Asia, English is often used for cross-border deals, given the mix of languages, and if a bank in Singapore wants a Thai or Vietnamese speaker, they’ll just hire a native speaker.
Whither Language Study?
Studying another language will give you an advantage in finance recruiting only if very specific conditions are true:
- You’re young and have the time to master it.
- You actually master it.
- You plan to work in a region like Europe or Latin America where knowledge of other languages is highly valued or essential, and where you could conceivably win offers as a foreigner.
- You’ve already done everything you can to boost your chances through other means (multiple internships, accounting/modeling mastery, superb English communication skills, etc.).
If you’ve done all that, great – knock yourself out.
But if not, get back to your English studies.
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