by Brian DeChesare Comments (156)

Which Language Should You Learn to Break Into Investment Banking?

Languages 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.

First, English has become even more dominant at multinational companies, even in countries like Japan that traditionally have low proficiency levels (see: Honda and Rakuten).

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.

In fact, that didn’t play out in the following 5+ years.

China 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:

  1. Getting a great internship.
  2. Mastering accounting and financial modeling.
  3. Contacting 20 alumni to set up informational interviews.
  4. Transferring to a university with better on-campus recruiting.
  5. 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:

  1. You’re young – you’re not even in university, or you just started.
  2. 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…).

Also, sometimes you don’t need to know the language to work in the region because English is used for business (the Middle East and India).

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.

That’s because:

  1. It’s almost certainly the easiest language to learn if you already know English.
  2. It’s useful in Latin America, the U.S. (see: Miami or LA), and Europe.
  3. You need it in Spanish-speaking countries (personal experience!).
  4. 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:

  1. You’re young and have the time to master it.
  2. You actually master it.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Great article. Helpful for a talk I’m preparing for.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks Brian!

    With fluent Chinese, Japanese, English and Spanish, what will the best career direction for an investment bank analyst? Would it means more chances of transfer?
    (“Fluent” means good enough for business meeting and casual conversation)

    Though working in Asia now, I am always dream of getting experience in NY / Europe.
    Language learning is my hobbies, and I would be very excited if someday it can boost my career.
    But if not I am still happy to spend 30 mins every day to study.

    Thanks in advance!

    1. You’re thinking about it the wrong way because banks do not hire translators – they hire people to execute deals and perform financial analysis. Language skills alone won’t help that much vs. solid deal experience. With those languages, you would be most useful as an IB Analyst in Asia, less useful in Europe, and even less useful in North America. But it’s hard to say much beyond that because I don’t know your academic/work background, current role, future goals, etc.

  3. Hi Brian, I live in London (have my whole life) and will be starting university this coming September (engineering at a target school in London). I’ve been trying to teach myself Russian. I am Armenian and I speak that fluently, but I decided Russian would be a more useful language to learn, plus my mother speaks it so she can help. I also intend on taking Russian classes at uni.
    I would like to ask what you mean by improving your English skills. I am not shy and have held my own in financial convos with seniors at BlackRock and Bloomberg, but I can’t BS like some. (Also I haven’t written an essay in 2 years). What type of English skills do you mean? Essay writing? Conversing skills? Having that speech style that makes people like you? What do you suggest I do to improve these. I can choose to take a class in philosophy, politics etc instead of Russian at uni. Is it worth it to do this so I get used to writing more essays or can I ‘improve my English’ in other ways?
    Also is it worth putting fluent Armenian on my CV?
    Sorry for the long winded comment. I really appreciate these articles you post and the help in the comments.

    I intend on working in London in the future and yes, my academics are excellent and I have good ECs.

    1. All of the above. The point is that even if you are a native speaker of a language or you learned it at a young age, “communication skills” are different from “language skills.” And most people do not have great communication skills (you should live in my inbox for a day…). Email writing is a particular weak spot for a lot of people. I would focus on writing short, effective emails and read some of the other tips here:

      Yes, you can list Armenian. As for Russian, it’s not that helpful unless you get to an extremely high level, and even if you do, there are many Russians who left the country to move to places like London… so it still might not be that helpful.

  4. Thank you

  5. If you’re in London, but you’ve already graduated is it worth trying to learn the other languages like Spanish?

    Or is it best reserved for a hobby then list it as a quality after you eventually reach the fluent level?

    Mind you, I’m saying this with someone who has fairly little to do to improve their English.

    1. Not worth a hardcore effort unless you really have the time and intend to live in a country where you have to use it and therefore get incredibly good.

  6. Good afternoon,
    What are the prospects of a Credit Analyst, which is a “middle office” or “support team” role, looking to break into IB?

    Depending on the firm and or who you talk to, Debt Solutions/Lev Fin, M&A, Infrastructure could be a good fit.

    I have also heard (in many quarters) that Credit Analysts tend to excel in client facing roles (although this might depend more on the individual). There also seems to be a large amount of modeling, analysis and presentation work involved which could help futher an individual’s case.

    Any thoughts?

    Thank you.

    1. It’s possible, but more so in the debt-related groups. Credit analysis is an OK way to get into banking, but probably not as good as other methods such as working at small PE firms first.

  7. I have been cold-calling/emailing and sending our my applications for M&A intern position here in Germany and most of the time I hear back with with responses somewhere along these lines of “You’re certainly qualified as you have these outstanding bla bla bla’s and we’d love to invite you for the interview as we’ve done for the candidates with similar profiles like yours … but we categorically set the German language proficiency requirement at ‘business-professional’ since we conduct majority of our business in German language.”

    I am an international student studying MSc Finance in Germany and I believed I spoke “Nearly Fluent” German. I have another year to go (plus 1.5 year extra) having lived here for a year now. I’m certain even Native speakers, unless they specifically studied Business/Management related subjects in German language, would not know the German vocabs. that come up in Financial Modeling, Due Diligence et al. I’ll certainly give my best to pull it off for my love of the culture, but seriously, for an internship/analyst role, “Business-professional?” Mein Arsch! Verpiss dich!Time for London!

    1. Thanks for sharing, and sorry to hear about that. Your story is one example of why European languages tend to be more useful for roles in London than in the actual countries that use those languages. I have yet to see a great example of someone who moved to Germany or France, learned the language, and then won a full-time role at the bank using it (but please, if you’re out there, reach out and let me know!).

      1. I hope I can be that one who will win offer in France. P.S. Still trying though

      2. Taking back my words, I won a 6-9 months internship offer in Frankfurt office with good history of interns continuing on a full time basis. So, yay!

  8. Hi Brian,

    I am a young recent graduate based in Poland. I’ll be working for Investor Services for a major bank here, but I am aiming for an off-cycle internship IB around February/March in Europe.

    1) I am a big language enthusiast, however I am wondering if to build upon my conversational fluency in German/Spanish? Which language would you recommend?

    2) Any suggestions on off-cycle internships and how to make a jump from investor services department to IB internship?

    1. 1) I think it really depends on where, specifically, you want to work. If you want to stay in Poland or go to the U.K., it’s not worth improving your existing language skills. But if you want to work in Spain or Latin America, yes, it’s worth it to improve your Spanish. I think German is arguably worth it as well, but my understanding is that it’s tough to win full-time roles in Germany as a foreigner (though internships are possible and don’t require as much language ability).

      2) For off-cycle internships, it is mostly about sheer effort and how many firms you can look up and cold email. There are so many banks and small investment firms in the U.K. that your chances are much better if you target places there. To go from Investor Services to IB, I would probably spin it as “experience working at Major Bank X, and I’m now seeking experience in investment banking” so that you’re not saying upfront exactly what you did.

  9. Avatar
    BBQ Shape

    Just a suggestion to all of those people who are struggling to define “fluency” vs “conversation fluency” etc. Go get tested. Get a score. Each language will sometimes have its own score and test system.

    That way if you wish, you can put “Standard Chinese – HSK Level 5” on your resume instead of “conversationally fluent.” (Calling it Mandarin is actually incorrect, but I won’t get into that here. For Chinese you can take the HSK, BCT, or OPI depending on your goals.)

    To give you an idea of the time commitment to go from zero to being able to have a 20-minute conversation with minimal error and to read a newspaper, the below is what it takes from an English speaker’s viewpoint:

    Spanish: 400-600 hours
    Italian, French, German etc.: 600-800 hours
    Slavic languages (Russian), Japanese, Hindustani, Urdu, and Persian (Farsi and Dari): 1,200 – 1,400 hours
    Standard Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Arabic etc. : 2,100 – 2,300 hours

    Now add on what it takes to learn how to say “subordinated note” in that language. Nothing worse than someone who claims fluency and then has to walk it back and caveat it to make it seem like he or she never made that claim. Decide for yourself if that time is wisely spent attempting to learn those languages or if you put in 2,000 hours following Brian’s guides and methods to get you the job you want. Be that studying for the GMAT, etc.

    Take a test, get a score. Eliminates the guess work.

    1. Yup, that is very true. Alternate Test: Can you read a newspaper in the language front to back without using a dictionary? Good! Then you can use it for investment banking roles. If not, reconsider…

    2. Valid point about the hours to learn languages, but I have to disagree about the benefit of listing tests for a few reasons (they are of course useful).
      1. There are many people who can study a language in schools and pass fluency tests, but when you put them in front of a client within finance, your ability to describe a picture will not help explaining a the benefits of a reverse merger.
      2. The example you showed here of HSK tests is only useful for someone who studied the language and returned to their home country. Working in the industry, I can tell you that 90% of people working in large Chinese Banks have no clue what an HSK test is. Its not that it isnt useful, its just that the test isnt widely known to local Chinese.

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