French is the official language in Congo, but most people speak local languages. French is used in government and in secondary and postsecondary education. Only a small proportion of the population uses French as a working language.

 As many as 250 African languages and dialects are spoken in Congo. Most languages belong to the Bantu family, one of Africa's five basic linguistic groups. Congo's four national languages are Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili and Tshiluba. Most Congolese can easily communicate in three, or even all four, languages.

Lingala was developed as a trade language, so that different ethnic groups could communicate. It is also the language spoken in the military. A Bantu language, it uses the system of stressing the first syllable of the stem word, and varying prefixes and nasal sounds to form different words. Lingala has three tone levels, low, medium and high, which are used to distinguish different words. 

All conversations begin with a formal greeting, often a lengthy one. A typical greeting might start with "Peace be unto you" or "Thanks be to God," and continue with inquiries about the family, health, work and so on. Another common greeting is Sango nini? (what news?). The usual reply is Sango te (no news), meaning "everything's fine."

  Did you know?
Talking drums have been used for generations to send messages from village to village. Special rhythms signal a death, birth, marriage or the impending arrival of a dignitary. They are used less frequently now, since television and radio broadcasts spread the news. 
Handshakes are an important part of greetings. It is considered impolite not to shake a man's hand when entering and leaving a social or business gathering. The handshake is a soft, rather than firm, grip. In most areas, men and women do not shake hands unless the woman extends her hand first. Also, a younger person waits for an older person to offer a hand first. The younger person reaches out with the right hand, resting the right forearm on the left hand as a sign of respect.

 In cities, traditional greetings may be replaced by shorter greetings in French. There, the French habit of kissing the cheek three times (starting with the left) is slowly becoming more acceptable among friends in urban areas.

  English   French   Lingala
  Yes   Oui   Eh
  No   Non   Te
  Please   S'il vous plaît   Limbisa
  Thank you   Merci   Matondo
  Hello   Bonjour   Mbote
  How are you?   Comment ça va?   Sango nini?
  Goodbye   Au revoir   Nakeyi

  Did you know?
Gift giving is an important and highly structured social ritual in Congo. Congolese are expected to give something to people who are above them in the social hierarchy. For example, people give a gift to their mother-in-law if she comes to visit for the day.