There are 213 individual languages listed for the DRC, with only one of these having no known speakers (Lewis, et al, 2013). French is the official language, with Kikongo, Lingala, Luba-Kasai, and Congo Swahili listed as national languages. The languages of the DRC (with the exception of French) can be classified into three groups: the Bantoid, the Adamawa-Ubangian, and the Central Sudanic group. These three groups, in turn, are part of two distinct genetic families: the Bantoid and the Adamawa-Ubangian are members of the Niger-Congo family, and the Central Sudanic group is a member of the Nilo-Saharan family. The Bantoid group has the largest number of speakers, with around 80% of the population speaking one of its languages as a first language (Palma, 2008; Leclerc, 2012). Kasanga (2012) puts forth a triglossic structure of language function in the DRC as follows:
French > National Languages > Ethnic Languages
Leclerc (2012) echoes this triglossic model, stating that “the majority of the Congolese practice an unstable diglossia” (translation mine). Ethnic languages are used primarily within families, as well as within ethnic groups. The national languages serve as “regional vehiculars”, especially in urban areas (ibid). They are most commonly used in business, local administration, education, and media. French, in turn, is used in all “official” domains, in particular in the government and judiciary.
Kasanga (2012) attributes the superiority of the French language to the “legacy of Belgian colonization” (p. 2), suggesting that Belgian authorities simply decreed French to be the superior language without any consideration for other language models. Palma (2008), however, categorizes the official promotion of French as the utilitarian result of failed attempts to promote languages indigenous to the DRC. Despite the establishment of French as the official language, the majority of the Congolese speak the national and ethnic languages in their everyday lives. Lingala, in particular, has expanded significantly, emerging as “the de facto indigenous national language which in significant respects defines Congolese nationalism via its predominant role in Congolese music and official functions in major national institutions such as the security forces and the Catholic church” (Bokamba, 2009, p. 66).
There is no official language policy in regards to education. Rather, there are various directives and guidelines from ministerial organizations, especially the Ministry of National Education. In general, the four national languages are taught in the first two years of primary school, with French gradually introduced beginning in the third year. Secondary and tertiary educations are taught exclusively in French.