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Author: Ron Graham


What is Speaking in Tongues?
—Xenoglossia versus Glossolalia

Speaking in tongues, or “the gift of tongues” was one of several miraculous powers first given to the apostles of Christ and other Christians in the first century. Today, those of the Charismatic or Pentecostal persuasion claim to speak in tongues.

The original gift of tongues was the power to preach the gospel fluently in a language that the speaker had never learned or known in any way. Such speech is technically called xenoglossia or xenoglossy. The phenomena observed today is different. It is an “ecstatic utterance” technically called “glossolalia”.

In this lesson we are going to...

  • (1) Describe xenoglossia and glossolalia;
  • (2) Look at the Biblical description of speaking in tongues;
  • (3) Look at so-called “speaking in tongues” today.

1 The Phenomena: Xenoglossia and Glossolalia

 xenoglossia  “speaking in tongues” —that is, speaking in a language which one has never learned or known.

NoteThe term xenoglossia is defined in Chambers’s dictionary as “the spontaneous use of a language which the speaker has never heard or learned. No scientifically attested case of xenoglossia has ever come to light.” From Greek, xeno strange, glossa tongue.”

This phenomena, which can rightly be described as “the gift of tongues”, is the ability to speak fluently a language one has never studied, had any exposure to, or “known” in any natural sense. Yet one can speak it as well as people who do know it as their mother tongue. This phenomena is not evident in the world today.

The fact that xenoglossia (xenoglossy) is not evident today, does not mean that it has never occurred in the past. When it did happen, however, it was a miraculous event, because it is not a natural or innate human ability.

 glossolalia  “ecstatic utterances” —that is, uttering language-like but unintelligible sounds usually in a state of elation.

NoteThe term “glossolalia” is defined in Chambers’s dictionary as “the phenomena of spontaneously uttering unintelligible sounds believed to form part of an unknown language or languages.” From Greek, glossa tongue, laleein to talk.

Glossolalia or “ecstatic utterance” is a common phenomenon, practised by many religions, pagan as well as “Christian”. You can make recordings of it, examine it, write histories and case studies about it. You can even practice it yourself if you so choose.

Two Components of Glossalalia

There are two components to this phenomena, neither of which is miraculous.

2 Tongues on the Day of Pentecost

Now let us examine the Biblical description of "speaking in tongues" to see which, if any, of these two phenomena match that description.

A Miraculous Sign

According to the scriptures, speaking in tongues is one of several signs which were to follow those who believed in Christ.

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mark 16:17-18).

This is not a complete list of miraculous signs. You might like to compare it with another list found in 1Corinthians 12:7-11.

Note the signs...

We are looking at a list of miraculous signs, not natural abilities. The speaking in new tongues is therefore not glossolalia (ecstatic utterance) because that is a natural ability.

The true Pentecostal tongues, spoken by the apostles, are described by the very people who heard them: "We each hear in our own language in which we were born."

Description of Tongues —Acts 2:1-11

¶“1When the day of Pentecost was in full swing, they were all together, fiercely united. 2And a sound came unexpectedly out of Heaven, as borne of a violent wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3Also they could see divided tongues like flames, and one sat upon each of them. 4They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave utterance to them.” (Acts 2:1-4).

¶“5Many Jews were staying in Jerusalem, pious men from every nation under heaven. 6The crowd gathered as the news spread, and they were confounded, because each heard them speak in his own language. 7So they were all amazed and marvelled, saying to each other, 'Look, aren't all those who speak Galilaeans? 8How then do we each hear in the language of our birthplace? 9We are Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God!' ” (Acts 2:5-11).

Some say the miracle caused listeners to hear in their own language and therefore to understand the speech. Why then did Paul criticise using the gift of tongues in church —saying that the people listening do not understand the tongues being spoken and therefore are not edified by what they hear (1Corinthians 14:1-28)?

The miracle recorded here was not in the hearing but in the speaking. The apostles "began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." The apostles were not speaking one language whilst the people were hearing different languages to that which was spoken.

The apostles were actually speaking in the other tongues that people were hearing. They were languages native and familiar to the hearers, but completely new to the apostles —languages which the apostles had not learned by study, or by natural exposure, yet were suddenly able to speak.

This scripture we have been looking at (Acts 2:4-8) is the only place in all of the Bible where "speaking in tongues" is actually described. The phenomena is mentioned in several places, but only in this one place is it described so that we may know exactly what happened.

It Wasn't Glossolalia

What Luke describes here in Acts 2:4-8 bears no similarity to what we observe when we hear and see "ecstatic utterance" or glossolalia being practised.

Luke’s description does, however, fit perfectly with the definition of xenoglossia. We are forced to conclude that the gift of tongues among Christians of New Testament times was miraculous xenoglossia, not commonplace glossolalia.

3 Tongues Today

It Doesn't Happen Today

Australia is rich with citizens and visitors who know many exotic languages. But they will not hear them when they listen to “ecstatic utterances” claimed to be “the gift of tongues” today.

They might hear plenty of hype and plenty of claims and plenty of noise. However they will not be able to say, "We hear them speak in our own language to which we were born" (Acts 2:8).

Not Like the 1st Century Churches

The use of “tongues” today does not follow the practice of New Testament times. The primary purposes of the gift of tongues was to be a sign to unbelievers and to teach them message of the gospel (1Corinthians 14:19,22).

"In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue... Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers" (1Corinthians 14:19,22).

In church, people were not allowed to exercise the gift of tongues, but were to keep silent, except for three at the most, provided they did not all talk at the same time, and that someone interpreted for the sake of those who could not understand the language (1Corinthians 14:27-28).

"If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God" (1Corinthians 14:27-28).

Folk who claim the gift of tongues today do not generally exercise the gift according to the order and purpose laid down by Paul. Rather they generally compare more with the manner in which the Corinthians exercised the gift before Paul corrected them.

Don't Be Deceived

Today’s ‘speaking in tongues’ is glossolalia. This is not the gift of New Testament times.

The true miraculous gift or sign described in the Bible is xenoglossia. This was a miraculous power enabling a person to speak to others in their first language, even though the speaker did not know that language.

Tongue-speakers today fail to do what the apostles did on the day of Pentecost. If you carefully observe what passes for speaking in tongues today, you will not see any amazing miraculous sign such as occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).

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