How important is knowing a second language when working overseas?

I'm really interested in working overseas in the future, particularly in Asia or Europe. Does anyone know how heavily knowing a language is judged when you apply? Ive looked at threads on here and some people say it doesn't matter and others say it's an absolute necessity to speak that countries language to a native fluency level... so either it depends on the firm or people on here really have no clue what they're talking about. So, can you only give advice if ACTUALLY know about international requirements. 

 In specific, I'm interested in Singapore, Switzerland, Russia and Hong Kong. I'd also be happy to work in one of the lesser known Asian countries like Thailand etc, (if they even have a banking scene there). I've been learning Russian and mandarin this past year and I don't plan on moving overseas until I work for a few years in the USA. So, in 4-5 years I'd assume my mandarin or Russian would be somewhere near "fluent" although probably would never reach "native" level. 

so yeah, I'm asking this because I wanted to know if I have a shot without being a native speaker. If so, I will work hard at mandarin or Russian (depending where I want to apply to) and give it my best shot. However, if native fluency is 100% required then I guess I'll just work in the USA and move overseas when I retire. 

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Comments (10)

Most Helpful
  • Prospect in IB - Gen
Jun 4, 2021 - 3:12am

I'm gonna be frank... you got literally zero chance of working in Singapore, Hong Kong, Russia, Switzerland, or even Thailand. I didn't even know IB in Russia was a thing, and the only people based out of Bangkok are some back office ppl. I'm guessing you're some total white kid who has never traveled before. The only place you might be able to transfer to (assuming the bank you're working at is supportive of this) is London. 

In Asia, 90% of front office banking jobs are based out of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo (obviously the chinese banks have offices in Shanghai). Back in the 90s, there were a fuck ton of American and British expats in Asia. Every year that number keeps shrinking. Banks realized that it's a lot cheaper to hire local college kids and pay them like 2/3 the normal IB salary. And these kids are actually really smart, they come from the Harvard, Yale, Whartons of their local country. Also, investment banking in Asia is all about trust. You gotta be a native speaker and look asian as well. You think Goldman Sachs is going to put some random white dude with shitty mandarin skills in front of their Chinese clients? lol no way in hell. There's a reason why Nomura, Mizuho, and MUFG will always dominate Japan and banks like ICBC will dominate China. 

  • Prospect in IB - Gen
Jun 4, 2021 - 7:22am

Tons of British and Americans who only speak English still go to work in HK and Singapore, it's not rare at all. And Singapore pays the same as London or even higher when taking into account lower taxes

  • VP in IB - Gen
Jun 4, 2021 - 9:35am

I've worked in Hong Kong and there is incorrect info here.

Unless you're covering mainland, there are no language requirements. Hong Kong and Sing are regional offices that that cover South/Southeast Asia and sometimes even India. Which language would one need fluency in? 

 BB / big bank Salary in SG / HK is on par with North America. Unless it's a 2nd tier or a local, they don't pay "2/3 of the normal IB salary"

Goldman (and every other investment bank) would and do put white/brown/every other color banker in front of Asian clients. You know how many American/European bankers are in Asia?

The usual suspects (GS/MS and co.) are very competitive in Japan. Am pretty sure one of those two topped the advisory league tables there last year but open to be corrected

  • Prospect in IB - Gen
Jun 4, 2021 - 2:10pm

I'm not saying there aren't Caucasian MDs in Asia pac. My point is that starting your Asia banking career in 2021 is different than 1995. Could you maybe spend a few years in HK or Singapore as an analyst? Sure, but you won't make it to MD. If you're based out of HK you need to either 1) speaking amazing mandarins to cover mainland China or 2) speak very good Cantonese to cover HK or 3) be Indian to cover India. The Singapore people have to cover Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines so you gotta speak one of those languages or else you can only cover Singaporean clients. To be in Tokyo you need to be 100% fluent in Japanese. This is all just so that you can be useful and put together some pitch books in whatever language.

As you move up, playing politics as a white guy is incredible tough. A lot of those very senior MDs in Asia either came over from the states already as an MD or they started their career in the 90s (which means that many of their colleagues were white as well). Maybe I'm completely wrong on all this but I'm interested to see whether a Caucasian who started their career as an analyst in the 2010s in Asia can become an MD...

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Jun 4, 2021 - 5:03am

Not sure about the Asian countries, but I've worked on a project in Switzerland, as my firm has an office in Zurich. Moving permanently may be tough, not necessarily because the language barriers are so strict, but because the Swiss culture is reserved. The language at many offices is in English, but the small talk is in Swiss-German. For investment banking, you can probably get away with English-only if you are doing infrastructure or financials. Still, for industrials, business services, etc., the buyers are likely DACHs based, meaning that it's better to have someone local. 

Personally, as an American employee going to a foreign destination, I think the value proposition is not that great for potential employers. There are so many people in Switzerland with the right background, a better network, and the right language skills that you'd have to be exceptional for the firms to hire you. 

I don't know... Yeah. Almost definitely yes.

  • 5
Jun 4, 2021 - 9:17am

It helps but don't NEED native language fluency to work in Hong Kong or Singapore, unless you're covering mainland China. Tons of expats do it. 

Source: me. Did part of my analyst years in HK. Our team had only one Mandarin speaker with semi-fluency in Cantonese, all the work was in English. Group covered Asia ex-China and my time there we did deals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, and India. We did have separate groups covering China where Mandarin fluency was an absolute must.

Expect recruiting to be just as tough / competitive as North America. I've heard the preference is skewing towards locals but but with a proper profile (top target school, solid GPA, extracurriculars, the standard stuff) and networking, you should be competitive.

Jul 20, 2021 - 1:05pm

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