Do People Really Speak 'In Tongues'?

The phenomenon of speaking in tongues, also known as ‘glossolalia’, is one in which people are apparently able to speak in a language that is unknown to them. Typically, this occurs at religious events, usually at moments of deep religious fervour. Worshippers enter a trance-like state and can gabble in a language that may be long dead or one of which they have no prior knowledge, but are suddenly fluent in. This phenomenon has its roots in the Bible, but many religions also report instances. But what is the truth behind glossolalia?

Biblical Glossolalia

The Bible has five major moments in which speaking in tongues have been recorded:

 ● The Book of Mark reports Christ talking to his disciples and including the instructions that they will “speak with new tongues”. While most theologians interpret this as a way of saying that the minds’ of the apostles had been opened and they would communicate their new thoughts in a way that might seem bizarre or unfamiliar to others, there are those who see it as evidence that these people received the Holy Spirit and, as a result, were able to speak in ancient and archaic languages.

 ● Acts 2 describes a more specific account in which, while the disciples were speaking at Jerusalem during Pentecost, “every man heard them speak in his own language” and wondered “how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?” It also describes an event in which “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in unknown languages.” There are many interpretations of this situation, ranging from telepathy to an opening of men’s hearts to such a point where feelings transcends mere words. However, there are those who also believe that this is an instance in which the phenomenon of speaking in tongues allowed those speaking to be understood by different people, from different nations.

 ● Acts 10 records another instance of speaking in tongues in Caesarea, in which those present compared the event to the one that happened in Jerusalem.

 ● Acts 19 gives the account of the disciple Paul laying his hands on a dozen men. At the moment in which these men are blessed by the Holy Spirit, they were heard to speak in tongues.

 ● In Corinthians, the disciple Paul talks about glossolalia, apparently encouraging followers to use the gift. He says that we must “not forbid to speak in tongues”. In his letter, he also suggests that he is able to speak this way, with more ability than anyone in Corinth: “I thank God I speak with more tongues than you all”. Again, there are those who interpret this as meaning that the love of God transcends mere language, yet it has also been taken to mean that there has been another, physical method of communication borne out of some supernatural intervention.

 Not a 20th Century Phenomenon

While speaking in tongues might seem to be a 20th Century phenomenon, there are instances of it throughout history, with particular relation to the Christian church. Irenaeus, a 2nd Century Church Father, said that “we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages.” Montanus, the founder of a Christian movement at around the same time, was reported to have become “possessed of a spirit, and suddenly began to rave in a kind of ecstatic trance, and to babble in a jargon, prophesying in a manner contrary to the custom of the Church.” This report was made by his opponents and one of the earliest recorded examples of doubt as to the authenticity or morality of glossolalia.

In the 20th Century, speaking in tongues famously become a part of Christian exorcism, with the possessed speaking in tongues at the moment that the evil spirit within them has been expelled. However, there are also many more examples of glossolalia taking place in less dramatic surroundings. Many preachers are said to be able to whip their congregations up into such a state of fervour that the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they fall into a religious reverie, speaking in ancient languages.

 The Evidence Against

Anthropologists and linguists have extensively researched this phenomenon, but have not once been able to identify any of the languages spoken as current or ever having existed in the past. The most they have been able to say is that the languages spoken tend to be similar to the babble of young children; random vowel sounds interspersed with the occasional accidental consonant. In addition, this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Christianity, which further undermines the notion that it is a gift from the Holy Spirit; Christian belief suggests that the Holy Spirit would not bestow itself upon non-believers, pagans or those who worship another god.

 A Religious or Psychological Belief?

 In 1972, Felicitas D Goodman carried out research into glossolalia, published under the title, “Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia.” In her paper, Goodman concludes that glossolalia is, “…a learned behaviour, learned either unawarely or, sometimes consciously.” Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recorded the activity in the brains of five women who were speaking tongues, noting the activity that was taking place. They found that “the frontal lobes – the thinking, wilful part of the brain through which people control what they do – were relatively quiet, as were the language centres. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active.”

Furthermore, a psychoanalyst at the University of Virginia stated that “the scans also showed a dip in the activity of a region called the left caudate. The findings from the frontal lobes are very clear, and make sense, but the caudate is usually active when you have positive affect, pleasure, positive emotions. The caudate is also involved in motor and emotional control…so it may be that practitioners, while mindful of their circumstances, nonetheless cede some control over their actions and emotions.”

In short, it may not be the Holy Spirit causing these people to speak in tongues, or it might be a heightened sense of emotion or religious fervour. However, in most cases, the phenomenon is very real to those who experience it, regardless of their faith.


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