UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image