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Decoding the Bible

What is ‘speaking in tongues’?

By Trisha Elliott

When I was completing my undergraduate degree, some Christian friends and I met for a Bible study led by a visiting Pentecostal minister. During the lively worship service that followed, my friend Deborah, who was born and raised in a traditional Anglican church, was praying along with the minister when she began to mutter what sounded like a foreign language. Her voice steadily grew louder, more rhythmic, almost musical. When she finished and sat down, head bowed in prayer, swaying slightly, the visiting minister offered an interpretation. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that God loved each one of us and was pleased that we were developing our faith.

It was an unusual experience to be sure, both for Deborah — who had never spoken in tongues before — and for me. In the staid United Church of my youth, I would have been much more likely to break into a yawn than an outburst of spirit. My curiosity was piqued.

What happened to Deborah? What is “speaking in tongues” or “glossolalia”? Is it a real language, a Christian language? Is it inspired by God or a side-effect of a hyper-emotional state? Why do some speak in tongues and others don’t? Is it healthy? Is it biblical?

Christian glossolalia is commonly traced to the book of Acts, where the apostles apparently began to speak to each other in tongues on the day of Pentecost. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-4). This Pentecost passage and a smattering of other texts are cited by proponents of glossolalia as biblical verification of “the heavenly language.” Curiously, Christian historical records recount few incidents of glossolalia after early church times, until the 1960s when it experienced resurgence under the tents of charismatic revivals.

Since then, numerous linguistic, psychological and religious studies have been conducted in an effort to explain the phenomenon.

Glossolalia, it turns out, doesn’t just fall off the tongues of charismatics or even Christians for that matter. Speaking in tongues is practised in many of the world’s religions. In the 1970s, Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, studied Pentecostals and concluded that there was no distinction between their practices and that of the followers of other religions.

Since Goodman’s study, some linguists have examined glossolalic vocalizations, concluding that they tend to mirror the speech patterns of the speaker’s native language. Others reason that glossolalia can be a learned behaviour. In one study, 20 percent of a group of undergraduates was able to speak in tongues after listening to a one-minute recording. That number jumped to 70 percent when another group of undergraduates in the same study received some instruction.

But successfully mimicking the sounds might not constitute glossolalia. Many glossolalists report that they don’t feel in control of their experience, that God’s voice is channelled through them. After my friend Deborah spoke in tongues, she said that it was like the Spirit radiated warmth from her head to her toes, and she was a little embarrassed that the Spirit had overtaken her in such a public way.

Recent brain studies support her experience. In 2006, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine professor Andrew Newburg discovered that activity in the frontal lobe —associated with language skills and bodily control — decreases when people speak in tongues, while activity in the emotional centres of the brain kicks into high gear.

So glossolalia involves a physiological reaction in certain parts of the brain, but is the change a result of Godly intervention? Is “tongues” a divine dialect?

Christians are divided. Some glossolalists will say the experience is a prerequisite for being a true Christian. Then again, I once had a religious studies professor who snickered that those speaking in tongues always “miraculously stopped in time for lunch.”

My friend Deborah changed in a positive way after her experience. She had a greater sense of peace and felt more assured of God’s presence with her. Glossolalia soon became part of her private religious practice.

I can’t say the same. I have never spoken in tongues. I doubt that I ever will. But I’ve felt a rush of Spirit when I sing and, occasionally when I paint. When it gets right down to it, if spirituality is freely expressed, I don’t see much of a difference.


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