When the Bible mentions “speaking in tongues,” is it referring to intelligible human language or unintelligible unknown tongues?
Yet these two types of speaking in tongues are closely related. Let’s take a look.
Tongues as Intelligible Languages
The first time speaking in tongues is mentioned is in Acts chapter 2:
1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
–Acts 2:1-4 NIV
However, the occurrence in Acts 2 is the only place where “other tongues” are identified as known human language.
6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?
8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”
–Acts 2:6-8 NIV
The word “language” is translated as such because it comes from the Greek dialekto. In Acts 2, heterais glossais is understood as native dialects—known human languages.
Peter indicates that this understandable form of tongues, xenolalia, is a type of prophetic utterance foretold by the prophet Joel: “‘Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy‘” (Acts 2:18 NIV).
The foreign hearers understood the Spirit-baptized disciples to be “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11 NIV) Spirit baptism manifests itself in prophetic declaration and praise.
Although the tongues at Cornelius’ house and in Ephesus are not identified as intelligible human languages, heterais glossais is still used. We see that the circumcised believers who accompanied Peter to the Gentile’s house “heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:46 NIV). When Paul laid his hands on the Ephesians, “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6 NIV).
Spirit baptism manifests itself in prophetic declaration, praise, and speaking in tongues, whether they are intelligible (xenolalia) or unintelligible (glossolalia).
Tongues as Unintelligible Utterances
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul discusses “speaking in tongues” (lalousin glossais) at length (12:30; 13:1; 14:2, 4, 6, 13, 18, 23, 27, 39).
In these chapters, however, Paul assumes that the Corinthians’ utterances in tongues are unintelligible: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (1 Cor. 14:2 NIV). And “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9 NIV).
Therefore, these unintelligible tongues must be interpreted by someone gifted by the Holy Spirit to do so: “For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says” (14:13 NIV). And “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret” (14:27 NIV).1
If Paul insists these tongues must be interpreted, he apparently considers they are not intelligible human languages being spoken, as in Acts 2. Yet, Paul says, “No matter how many different languages there are in the world, not one of them is without meaning” (14:10 GW).
These Corinthian tongues may be unintelligible, yet they are not meaningless. They merely need to be interpreted.
A key to the difference between xenolalia and glossolalia is found here:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
–1 Corinthians 13:1 NIV
Paul, here, could be comparing prophecy in the native language with a glossolalic message in an unknown tongue that must be interpreted. But he could also mean that some speaking tongues is understandable human languages (“tongues of men”), as at Pentecost in Acts 2 (xenolalia), and some are unintelligible unless interpreted (“tongues of angels”), as in these chapters of Corinthians (glossolalia).
As Robert P. Menzies points out in his excellent Speaking in Tongues (CPT Press, 2016), all of these passages:
- Associate tongues with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
- Use similar vocabulary (glossais)
- Describe resulting speech as praise and prophecy
There are contemporary instances where private tongues or public messages in tongues are recognized as known human languages. Jordan Daniel May has collected testimonies of xenolalic occurrences in his inspiring Global Witnesses to Pentecost: The Testimony of ‘Other Tongues’ by Jordan Daniel May (Cherohala Press, 2013).
Whether we use tongues as private prayer language or deliver a Spirit-prompted message in tongues at a gathering of believers, we are speaking prophetically and glorifying God.
16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.'”
–Acts 2:16-18 NIV
1. Paul is comparing private prayer language, given as evidence of being baptized in the Spirit, with the spiritual gift of tongues, a Spirit-prompted utterance in a public setting that must be followed by the Spirit-prompted gift of interpretation.↩