Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, open to debate

Friday, October 12, 2007 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Glossolalia — the term itself sounds like a different language, and that’s just the point.

Glossolalia, better known as speaking in tongues, occurs worldwide in many religious communities, particularly among Pentecostal Christians. To speak in tongues is to speak an incomprehensible language with utterances that sound fluent. Often it is attributed to religious experiences in which a higher power speaks through the glossolalist in a trancelike state.


Within Christianity, some believe speaking in tongues is a direct communication with God, the language spoken in heaven and one of the divine gifts. In some cases, the speaker does not understand the language he or she is speaking and may not even recall doing so.

The Bible talks about speaking in tongues 35 times. In the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples spoke in tongues on Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and Christ’s followers.

What took place on Pentecost is often referred to as the reversal of what took place at the Tower of Babel. In the book of Genesis, the people, who at that time spoke the same language, decided to build a tower to reach heaven. In response, God confused them by giving them all different languages so that no one could understand each other. On Pentecost, the Apostles were given “tongues of fire” and each person heard the prophecies in his or her own language.


Glossolalia has many skeptics. Many believe glossolalia, in addition to the other divine gifts, disappeared with the death of the Apostles. Critics of the language call it babbling, and some believe glossolalists place themselves into a state of vocal hysteria. Linguists have studied glossolalia and found that while it does seem to have a grammatical structure, including inflections and punctuation, it cannot be concluded that glossolalia is a language.

A research project in 2006 at the University of Pennsylvania described speaking in tongues as an individual speaking an incomprehensible language, yet perceiving it to have great personal meaning. Researchers in the university’s medical school discovered decreased brain activity in the frontal lobes, the area of the brain linked to self-control, while test subjects were speaking in tongues. That “could be interpreted as the subject’s sense of self being taken over by something else,” principal investigator Andrew Newberg said in a report on the university’s Web site.

Sources: Bible Gateway; Speaking in Tongues Truth; the University of Pennsylvania.

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