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One of the weirdest practices you’ll ever encounter among right-wing Christians has to be to be their practice of “speaking in tongues.” I strongly suspect that more people know about snake handling than know about speaking in tongues–and for a reason. Not only have I been asked about it by a few folks lately, but it’s also come up in comments and in social media–so for whatever reason, people are thinking about this topic of late. So let’s plunge in and look at what it is and why some Christians practice it.

I don't know if this particular group of Christians practices speaking in tongues, but it looks about like my old outfit did--except for the short sleeves on that lady. (Credit: Doug Joseph, CC-NoDerivs license.)
I don’t know if this particular group of Christians practices speaking in tongues, but it looks about like my old outfit did–except for the short sleeves on the women. (Credit: Doug Joseph, CC-NoDerivs license.)

What is Speaking in Tongues According to Those Who Practice It?

“Speaking in tongues” is a phrase that means “babbling in a language that the speaker doesn’t officially know while praying.” Generally this babble is the symptom of a huge outburst of emotional euphoria–like a Christian might experience during conversion or baptism. And this babble is believed by many Christians to be either an existing current language or a dead one, but either way a real language that was once spoken or is now spoken by people in the real world and which could be understood by someone fluent in that language who overheard the prayer.

Speaking in tongues is a custom among many very conservative Protestant Christian churches, though one finds it among some Catholics as well (my very Catholic grandmother succinctly described Charismatic Catholics as “not like us” when I asked about it when I was 8). The people doing it are often described as “charismatic.” This practice goes along with other customs like “laying on of hands” for magic healing, a belief in an inerrant and literally true Bible, and divinely-mandated sexism. Charismatic Christians comprise about a quarter of Christians around the world, so it’s strange that the custom isn’t seen by outsiders more often than it is.

When Christians speak in tongues, they think that it’s the spirit of their god “infilling” them and inspiring them to babble that way. “God’s spirit” makes a Christian speak in tongues in the same way that boiling water makes a teakettle whistle, as people said repeatedly back in my day. We considered it all but a required sign of salvation; if any folks “got saved,” they’d speak in tongues the second our god’s spirit descended upon them and filled them with its presence–a miracle we called “Baptism in the Spirit.” We were deeply suspicious of people who “got saved” who didn’t speak in tongues, too. We weren’t sure it’d taken quite right. To be properly “saved,” one had to be baptized in both the Spirit and in the flesh by immersion, and one would show that the salvation was still valid by speaking in tongues fairly regularly.

Once the Christian is “saved,” then speaking in tongues becomes a sort of barometer for how “right with God” that person is. The idea is that if someone has undealt-with sins on his or her conscience, then speaking in tongues becomes impossible, while it’s impossible to refrain from speaking in tongues if someone is properly topped-off with Jesus Power. Someone who hasn’t spoken in tongues for a while might call a night when they finally managed to do it “breaking through” (to their god, I suppose), and someone who hasn’t done it in a while, like me most of the time I was Pentecostal, might be coached and encouraged a thousand different ways to help achieve that breakthrough. And it’s not uncommon to see Christian speakers at churches suddenly break off a sermon to babble in tongues in mid-service, then go back to the sermon with praise for the “miracle” they’d just experienced. (If any of this sounds kind of sexual, it probably should.)

Christians speak in tongues in one of two different ways. The most common way is for a Christian to babble during prayer or worship, either alone or with a group. Nobody’s particularly listening to what is being said or trying to work out what it means, though if someone’s around who speaks that language and can identify it then all the better. This form of tongues is thought to be a direct communication to the Christian god–who, of course, understands everything being babbled. The second, less common way is for a Christian to babble in front of an assemblage of other, silent Christians, and in this case, it is vitally important for the babbling to have some kind of translation because it is thought to be a direct communication from the Christian god to his followers. Some churches only do one or the other form, and some even hold that one or both forms are demonic, “of the flesh” (meaning human-generated rather than divine in basis), or not TRULY CHRISTIAN™ in some other way. I’ll be mostly dealing with the first form here today.

Nowadays, speaking in tongues is still popular–and a very profitable sideline for Christian book publishers and writers. It’s not hard to find books advising Christians why and how to speak in tongues.

Christians who speak in tongues would probably find it exceedingly disrespectful for me to describe it as “babbling” and I apologize for characterizing it in a way that might offend them, while asking their understanding because even as a Christian who belonged to a church that practiced speaking in tongues and who wholeheartedly believed (if mistakenly!) that at least some of what I was hearing was divine in some way, I thought that it sounded like baby babble. I don’t think many non-practitioners would think anything different. Absolutely nothing about it sounds like any real language of any kind.

But among practitioners, every example of this babble is a divine language and a genuine miracle. In my church–and likely in many others–we had many stories of people who’d visited us for a service and heard this babble and went “OMG! It sounds just like my language from home!” A lot of these stories were set in foreign countries whose native languages sounded especially unintelligible to English monoglots–especially in India and various countries in Africa. I even knew one of the people whose babble had been thus declared officially verified by the standards of my church, an angelic little blond girl who we’ll call Mia. She’d endeared herself to quite a few people in my church and was the flower girl at my wedding to Biff. The story went that when she was 3 or so, she got “baptized in the Spirit” and right around then a Jewish man had visited us and declared that her babble was perfect Aramaic. No, really.

You’ve also probably heard of the Christian minister who apparently lost control of herself while posting on Facebook and “typed in tongues,” but my old church would have considered that extremely weird.

What Does It Sound Like?

Well, like this basically, or this. Most of the time, someone who is praying or preaching suddenly lapses into incomprehensible babbling. Sometimes the Christian will lapse in and out of this babbling while conducting religious services. The babble is normally very fast-paced, with few of the normal breaks in speech that people employ. The total lack of pauses and breaks is important. Let me illustrate what I mean by linking you up to a video. Watch it, and listen to the audio:

YouTube video

The first time I played this, Mr. Captain overheard it and went “Oh my god, that’s…” and he immediately guessed what the speech was supposed to be. He didn’t even need to see it or read the title. He knew exactly what was going on because that speech’s cadence is as familiar to English speakers as the alphabet song. In spoken languages, the breaks we use are as almost as important as the actual words we say. The joke going around lately discusses how important “punctuation” is in language: there’s such a difference between “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!” But people speaking in tongues don’t know where to put their pauses–because they’re not really using real language.

When I was Christian and hanging around church after a service one Sunday night while Biff swanned around up front at the altar, I was struck one day with the realization that most of what I was hearing sounded exactly like what an ignorant American thought Aramaic sounded like. Most Christians who buy into speaking in tongues also have a major hard-on for Judaism and “original Christianity,” so it makes sense that they’d consider Hebrew and more importantly Aramaic (an old language that was the dominant worship language of the Jews for a while) to be a sort of divine language. If “God” preferred any language, surely he preferred this one above all else since his chosen people had used it for so long.

All that said, I still believed that at least some tongues-talking was divine and miraculous while I was Christian, at least until the very end of my deconversion process. I might have suspected that at least some of what I was seeing and hearing was “of the flesh,” but I didn’t discount the idea completely.

Did Your Captain Speak in Tongues?

Yes, twice. I was Pentecostal for about 8 years total, so my near-total lack of tongues-talking was a source of consternation and concern for my peers and then-husband Biff. I spoke in tongues once when I reconverted to Pentecostalism at 17, and again at a very large revival camp when I was around 21. You’ll note that both situations were extremely emotionally-charged for me, and looking back I think there was a lot of emotional catharsis and euphoria going on that made me more suggestible.

I won’t downplay how it felt while it was happening. I love myself and the truth too much to do that. Speaking in tongues was like having a verbal orgasm, like a wash of sheer giddy euphoria from head to toe that shook me to my foundations and left me totally drained afterwards. I was too young and inexperienced to know much about life and the rich array of experiences and thrills it has to offer, so I readily accepted the explanation my church offered that what had happened was supernatural in nature.

But what I wasn’t going to do was fake it till I made it. I envied my Christian peers and husband for how they seemed able to summon tongues-talking from thin air, but I didn’t “feel” it except for those two times. What I heard from them sounded forced, practiced, studied, and–yes–fake. I refused to do that.

Is Speaking in Tongues Really Supernatural?

You’re kidding, right?

No, it is not supernatural in any way. Not even a little.

Nor is the concept of speaking in tongues even unique to Christianity.

What’s going on here is a form of glossolalia and xenoglossia. You’ve probably heard the first term before–it means to speak in words that aren’t understood by either the speaker or anybody else, and it describes the first form of speaking in tongues: private babble thought to be between one person and his or her god. Xenoglossia is the second form of speaking in tongues and is a paranormal term that means “to speak a language the speaker hasn’t formally ever learned.”

History is full of instances where people spoke in languages they didn’t officially know, from ancient and medieval times (and the Bible, obviously) all the way to the modern day. But when we’ve examined the question, we’ve never found anybody speaking in these other languages who actually was doing it via some kind of supernatural gift. Either the person wasn’t quite speaking the language as well as advertised, or else the person already knew the language in question. But that doesn’t stop all kinds of individuals and religious traditions–not just Christianity by far–from claiming it happens to them. And despite the mounting and universal evidence that it’s just babbling, Christians who do it can be counted upon to keep claiming it’s supernatural in nature.

Remember Mia, the little girl who apparently spoke in tongues in perfect Aramaic at three years of age? When I heard that story as a teenager, I was simply entranced. One night after services I caught sight of her speaking in tongues with her hands in the air and her eyes closed in rapturous devotion. I got very close to her to listen to what she was saying. And I quickly realized with dismay that nothing she was saying sounded even remotely like any language. It did sound vaguely Hebrew, but it wasn’t anything she couldn’t have figured out by listening to people at church. Nor did it feature any of the signs of language that I’d ever heard; it had no breaks or pauses between syllables, no structure, and no coherence.

I asked my pastor later why nobody’d gotten the name of the Jewish visitor who’d made that proclamation about Mia five years earlier, and why we’d never gotten a deposition or written account from him of exactly what she had said. I wondered, as well, why we had never invited any linguists in to verify that we were all speaking in a real language of some kind. My pastor laughed in that soft, folksy way he had and gently told me that doing that would ruin the miracle of it and outsiders just didn’t understand it like we did.

Maybe he knew something I didn’t: that a linguist had already investigated speaking in tongues and discovered that it wasn’t really language at all, that the components of this “divine speech” were based on sounds from the native language of the person doing the babbling, and that nothing about it was miraculous in any way. That study had been published around the time of my birth, so undoubtedly a well-educated minister would have known about it by the time I was in college.

The smart speakers-in-tongues will claim, upon finding out this stuff, that the babbling isn’t a real language spoken by people on Earth, but a “personal prayer language” that Jesus gives each Christian as a way of communing directly with that person. But that just invites more questions than it answers, like a lot of the rationalizations offered up by Christians, namely why this god needs to make up whole languages for people to figure out what they want to say–and why he expends that kind of energy creating these divine languages instead of, oh I don’t know, curing cancer or saving people from natural disasters.

(RationalWiki has a good writeup of what I’m talking about here.)

A Final Note or Two.

Since leaving Christianity, I’ve come to realize that there is no way in the world for speaking in tongues to be divine or miraculous in any way. Besides figuring out that ecstatic speech is part of many religions past and present, I also came to realize that the euphoria sparking episodes of speaking in tongues wasn’t unique to Christianity either. I’d learned my culture’s way of creating, maintaining, and responding to that euphoria, that’s all. And in time I’d learn that the best preachers in my culture were either trained or intuitively knew how to create that euphoric state in their listeners.

Ironically, the first church I attended was situated next to a Mormon church. The rumor went that Mormons got trained in how to “speak in tongues.” We looked down on them because their speaking in tongues was scripted while ours was spontaneous. Nothing could be further from the truth there, though. I was coached as thoroughly as they supposedly were, and the speaking in tongues I heard was just as scripted-sounding as theirs supposedly was.

The coaching and instruction I absorbed and received lasted long after my time in the religion had ended. Like a lot of other ex-Christians who’ve come out of that end of Christianity, I can speak in tongues on demand. I might be embarrassed that I ever fell into that weird stuff, but at least I came out of it with a useful party trick.

About ten years after I’d left Christianity entirely, I ended up at a holiday party that featured a professional stage hypnotist. I got selected to be part of a skit onstage: I would be playing an alien queen who didn’t speak English, while a friend would play my interpreter and a third person would play a reporter who only spoke English. The reporter would ask the friend questions, which the friend had to relay to me in “our” language. I’d answer back in “our” language, and she’d relay the answer in English to the reporter.

I was more than a little drunk, but I remembered enough of my previous indoctrination to play the part. For the rest of the night, people were coming up to me astonished that I’d so convincingly spoken in that “alien” language. Some of them asked how I’d done it.

“I used to be Pentecostal,” I answered, and they always just stared at me. They didn’t understand what the answer had to do with the question.

But now you do.

When you hear about speaking in tongues, hopefully now you’ve got a better idea of what the folks talking about it are saying.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...