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Speaking In Tongues: Research & Personal Experience
Speaking in tongues is a spiritual practice where an individual speaks words and syllables that he or she rarely understands, which are used to commune and communicate with God. Speaking in tongues is recorded in the New Testament, and practiced by many Christians today. I have been speaking in tongues for over twenty years, and during that time probably exercised the gift a majority of days. I write from the perspective of someone deeply familiar with the experience. When I looked at the articles available online, I found many Bible studies, mostly focused on whether or not speaking in tongues is a legitimate practice for Christians. Since I’ve been doing this more than half my life, that question is clearly resolved for me. It is also well addressed online, where one can find passionate biblical arguments for either side of the debate. But I did not find online first person narratives about subjects like: how speaking in tongues impacts the life of a believer, what it can do and what it does not do, how it feels emotionally and spiritually, and what place it finds over the long term in a person’s relationship with God.
In addition, I found little to nothing from long time tongues speakers reflecting on the scientific research of the past few decades. Most articles again focused on the research to either shore up a defense of legitimacy, or to attack the practice. I could not find articles using the research to shed light on one’s personal experience, nor how the research might enhance the practice of speaking in tongues. I hope this article will begin to fill that gap.
An overview of my history speaking in tongues
I’ve talked about speaking in tongues very little, even with those I am closest to. A few years ago my teenage son asked me “What is this thing ‘speaking in tongues?’ because he had read about it in the one of the letters of Paul. I gave a quick run down of the New Testament history and theory behind the practice, and then I added that I began speaking in tongues in college, and do so regularly. He looked surprised. “Why don’t I know this?” he said. I found myself a little surprised he didn’t know. I think of us as close, and this is an integral part of my inner life, so why didn’t he know? I didn’t realize until then that while I may speak in tongues often, I can go for years without talking with anyone about it. Tongues has been an inner journey for me.
This article will give a history I’ve rarely if ever told.
I began to speak in tongues in my junior year of college. It was the late 1980s, and I belonged to a small church of the sort which at that time called itself “charismatic.” Nearly everyone in the church spoke in tongues, so I began my journey (for the sake of brevity I will call it simply ‘tongues’ rather than ‘speaking in tongues’ from now on) in a supportive environment. As far as I know everyone who wanted to speak in tongues did so without undue effort (some people would lay hands on the person who wanted to start, and in fairly short order the person would begin), and perhaps because it all happened easily and naturally, my friends and I viewed it as just another aspect of Christian life. Tongues was cool, and being college students we liked cool stuff. It existed in the continuum of cool things we were excited about in our Christian lives.
So I began the process of finding where it fit. One of the first things I discovered was that tongues was a great tool for focusing. Starting off morning prayer time with some tongues helped me settle in. I liked getting to Sunday service early anyway, to have some time to set my mind on worshiping God. Tongues was great for a time like this, a time when I just wanted to get my heart and mind focused on Him. When I was praying in a large group I would pray quietly in tongues during the gaps and pauses that naturally happen. It kept my mind from wandering while allowing me to stay aware. I was able to keep myself in God’s presence, while at the same time staying aware of the corporate experience of worship. Another early reaction to tongues was just how unimpressive it sounded. Anyone overhearing would just think you were saying random syllables, if they spared it any thought at all. “It doesn’t sound like anything,” was the comment from one church friend. We both laughed a little, shook our heads. Another surprise was how little I actually felt. I didn’t exactly expect the clouds to part with a peal of thunder, but I thought I would feel some sense of exaltation, or something like that. Instead, no particular emotion attached to the experience. And so I continued, exploring this new ability.
The beginning of the clip below is a young woman speaking in tongues. I chose it as a clear example of what speaking in tongues sounds like. (After speaking in tongues for a bit, she goes on to talk about the benefits of speaking in tongues, and her personal experience.)
The summer following my junior year of college I signed on with a summer ministry which sent college and seminary students to lead informal worship services in the national parks. They assigned me to Smoky Mountain National Park. So I spent the summer in a small cabin in a wilderness area, planning worship services for campers, working a day job for the Parks service, and spending time praying. I had been speaking in tongues only a few months at this point, and was still finding my way. Often that summer I felt a desire to speak in tongues on and on. I was in the perfect place for it. I had plenty of privacy, and once I was off work little demand on my time. I walked in the woods and let the tongues have free rein; it seemed to well up and push its way out, like an underground river suddenly finding a way to the surface. My footsteps fell into its rhythm. Alone in the wilderness I didn’t have to think of interrupting or disturbing anyone: I was free with only myself and God.
What happened during all those sessions? I didn’t keep track of time, nor have any agenda other than to let it happen. At this point that summer is 25 years in the past, and my sense is that during that time a foundation was laid down in my spiritual life that I have been building on ever since. Paul said that tongues “builds up the inner man.” In my experience it did exactly that: it strengthened some inner part of me that connects to God. This is not something I can prove, it is simply my sense of what happened with me internally.
In the years since then, speaking in tongues has settled into a regular place in my life as a Christian. I often do it when I am driving alone in the car. Prayer that includes prayer requests, or even talking over my life with God, isn’t possible a lot of the time: it takes too much attention. For requests or a full conversational prayer, I need to dedicate time to only that. Speaking in tongues, on the other hand, can be done while driving, sorting laundry, picking up clutter, ect. It can fill your life. It can be employed during corporate worship during natural lulls and pauses, or as a way of quietly praying along with someone who is offering a public prayer in a larger group. (I do this very quietly, enunciating under my breath.) I sometimes follow the melody of worship songs, but sing in tongues. When the song is unfamiliar, I’m even more likely to do this. I think it is because following a new song takes some focus, and employing tongues helps me maintain my focus on God. A factor in my worship behavior may be that I am quite unmusical. I’m probably tone deaf or something like that, and I have a singing voice no one but God would want to hear. In daily life I have almost no interest in listening to music, a fact that always seems to puzzle people. Employing tongues during musical worship may be simply a way for me to operate in a venue (language) which works well for me, rather than one (music) which has never held much interest.
Tongues is as unobtrusive a gift as can be imagined. It is simple, as many powerful spiritual practices are. As in my case, no one need even know you are practicing it.
What does a person experience when speaking in tongues?
I’ve read quite a few articles about speaking in tongues written by people who have never experienced it themselves, and no matter how scholarly, they often strike a false note. They just don’t know what it is like. They’ve observed it but they haven’t experienced it, and there is all the difference in the world between the two. I could compare it to going to the local Catholic priest for marriage counseling. Father John may be scholarly, kindly, insightful and licensed in Marriage and Family Therapy, but at some point he’s just way off base.
One example is the common perception that people who are speaking in tongues are “out of it,” perhaps less mentally present. Some years before beginning to speak in tongues one person described it to me, “And then they get on such a… wavelength with God that this other language comes out,” giving the idea that tongues speakers get a bit into another dimension. The web article Speaking in Tongues: a Neural Snapshot says, “It has commonly been considered a form of ecstatic trance….” While I can see perfectly well why people think this, from my experience nothing is farther from the truth. The issue of awareness, and the connected issue of control, is not a simple one, and nowhere are appearances more deceptive than in worship. The following example may shed some light.
A few weeks ago I went to a healing service at a friend’s invitation. Since developing chronic pain I tend to avoid crowds, because even a little light jostling can significantly impact my pain level. So I went to this service, and as the room got more crowded than I expected, and the empty space around me disappeared, I began to feel anxious. I thought sitting in the front row would give me a buffer of empty space, but then the traveling ministry team set up chairs to the side of the front row, and I ended up nearly knee to knee with a group of twenty-somethings, a situation my rickety body tries to avoid. The music started, and the twenty-somethings began to respond in ways that will be familiar to anyone who has attended a charismatic, Pentecostal or spirit-filled service. They were jumping, shaking, moving with fast jerks, and occasionally diving prone onto the floor. I tried not to cross the bridge from anxiety to fear. More than once I had ended up with my pain level spiraling out of control after getting shouldered at a sporting event, or stumbled into at the mall. Suddenly, the girl nearest me jackknifed. She had been standing upright, and swiftly, as though someone had pushed powerfully, she folded in half at the waist. Most people can laugh off a collision with another body, but not me. I thought she was going to slam down right into my lap, but instead she caught herself lightly with two fingers on my knee. She put almost no weight on me. She lifted her face and smiled reassuringly. I smiled back. She came close as could be, she moved with force, and yet I saw she was perfectly aware of me. She could tell I was sure, that I was nervous about my physical space. The rest of the service was the same: the twenty-somethings continued their communion with God complete with its physical expression, but not one of them so much as brushed against me. They surely had a part of their attention taken up with this ecstatic communion with God, but I felt safer with them, as distracted as they may have appeared, than I have felt in any other crowd. They were more in control of themselves, and more aware of their surroundings, than the average mall crowd.
Like the young men and women at that service, when I speak in tongues, I am perfectly aware of my surroundings. I am focusing on communing with God, but my sight, hearing, ect. continue to work just fine.
How does tongues affect a person’s Christian life?
How tongues intersects with the rest of Christian life is another topic where I think those who are not practitioners have little insight. While doing a bit of internet research I came across an article originally published in print, in a professional journal for theologians. The writer had this to say about speaking in tongues, “The faith of glossolalists is based on their inner emotional voice.” (Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol 45, #3, July 1981) This is not my experience, nor have I ever heard any of my friends speak about their tongues experience that way. To the extent that I’ve talked it over with others (which I admit hasn’t been much) everyone seems to agree that tongues isn’t particularly emotional, nor is one’s faith in God dependent on feelings caused by tongues. I can see how an outside observer might assume that people speaking in tongues must be experiencing heightened emotions, but that has never been the case for me. The writer in this particular article meant his comment as a criticism of the effect of speaking in tongues on the overall Christian life: he thought people who spoke in tongues depended on their feelings, and the practice of speaking in tongues confirmed them in this view. Then, when life got tough as it inevitably does, and the feelings weren’t flowing, they tended to drop Christian practice. As I read over the article, I couldn’t help getting the impression that the writer just plain didn’t like tongues, didn’t like people doing it, and fastened on to any comments from tongues speakers which confirmed his opinion that it was all going to end badly.
In my own experience, I’ve never seen tongues harm anyone’s Christian life. I know people who spoke in tongues at one time, and are now not practicing Christians, but speaking in tongues was not the issue. I’ve read a few accounts of Christians who spoke in tongues at one point in their lives, now think the practice is nothing but self deception, but have continued as Christians. In my own experience, tongues strengthened my Christian life. It appears to have done the same for many of my fellow Christians, although the effect is far from universal. Tongues is no panacea.
Over this past year, as I researched scientific studies about tongues, I began to analyze my own behavior with tongues. I realized I only speak in tongues in environments where I feel completely safe: in my favorite corner of the living room before my family comes down in the morning, alone in my car, in a group service with people I trust. One aspect of the research shed some light on this for me.
Links to research
- A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues - New York Times
Scientists have used brain images to peer into the minds of those who speak in tongues.
- Religion and the Brain
Religion and the brain - religious experience is a natural product of the brain.
- Glossolalia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Several web articles noted that brain imaging of people speaking in tongues showed a decrease of activity in the area of the brain associated with control. (Links to these articles are in the box to the right.) One test subject described her experience: “You’re not really out of control. But you have no control over what’s happening.” This dichotomy describes my experience with tongues, and also explained to me why I have always been so selective about where I speak in tongues. Some refer to a time when the brain activity associated with control slows as an “alpha state.” During this time, the person is more suggestible, more impressionable. Though I had never put it into words, I intuited that while speaking in tongues my guard would be down. I allowed this to happen only in situations where I felt secure.
This also leads me to a possibility of how tongues may operate in the Christian life. Given that it ushers in an alpha state, tongues is the perfect way to begin a time of personal prayer, and also a way to put oneself in the best way of fully participating in corporate worship. In the Christian life a person is constantly seeking to follow God more closely, figure out what He wants, experience a sense of His presence, get His help with decision making, etc. Christians talk about yielding to God. Here is a tool which puts you into a state where you are more easily influenced. Use it at carefully chosen times, and you are likely to come more and more under God’s influence, while at the same time remaining fully yourself. This is to my mind a lovely picture of the dance between God and the individual believer.
Linguistic research on speaking in tongues
The seminal work on speaking in tongues remains the 1972 book “Tongues of Men and Angels,” a 300 page tome based on 10 years of research among Pentecostals. Renowned linguist William Samarin of the University of Toronto brought both a linguistic and an anthropological lens to his research on speaking in tongues, and conducted himself with great respect towards the people he studied. Samarin taped many people speaking in tongues in both private and public settings, and included subjects from diverse ethnic backgrounds. To get a good linguistic look at what was happening, he included subjects with different native languages, to see how the language a person spoke in everyday life affected their tongues speaking.
Samarin concluded that speaking in tongues, although it resembles language, is not a language. Here are some of his reasons:
· Parishioners use phonemes from a language they speak themselves, never any sounds from languages they do not speak
· Tongues lacks internal grammatical structure
· All humans use language to communicate meaning – speaking in tongues does not communicate meaning in any measurable way
Samarin described speaking in tongues as “"a meaningless but phonetically structured human utterance believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead."
"In 2003 I brought in members from a Pentacostal church and scanned them while they engaged in the practice of speaking in tongues. To those unfamiliar with this practice, it may sound like a forgein language or like babble, but I have heard renditions that reminded me of medieval Italian liturgies and ancient Assyrian poems."
From How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newburd and Mark Waldman
What is language?
What is language, and how does it overlap with communication? How many words and how much grammatical structure do you need for communication? How much for self expression? I think the following story sheds some light on these questions.
I went to visit a friend some years ago, and brought my toddler daughter along. While my friend and I sat in her living room catching up, my daughter slowly wandered through the room, studying the many family photos scattered about. First she walked around and looked, and then she began to delicately touch just one fingertip to the glass of each picture, pointing to the face of a child. She went from table to windowsill to knickknack shelves, locating children (she ignored the adults in the pictures) and intoning softly, “Baby, bay – bee.” She was absorbed in finding all the baby pictures among the room’s many ornaments, and her voice took on a dreamy quality. My friend and I both paused to watch this, and my friend said, “That’s all the love you’ve given her, that’s what you can hear in her voice.” I think she was right: my daughter was summing up her own life experience in those two syllables. She was investing in “bay-bee” all the feelings and events of her year and a half of life as an adored child. It was communication. But this particular communication had no grammar, and only one word. How much can you communicate with one word? In my daughter’s case, I think she communicated a lot. Of course, that communication was rich for me because of my intimacy with her; at that point in her life we had hardly been apart at all. A stranger coming in with no context might have thought she was simply pointing out certain faces in the pictures.
I think speaking in tongues is like this. People who speak in tongues regularly are aware that it is quite repetitive. Also, tongues speakers have their own sounds and words that they will repeat over and over, often for years. Tongues has the effect of easing one into an alpha state, and I think it has a valuable use simply for that, but I think the meaning of a simple set of sounds spoken in tongues may be as rich as my daughter’s “bay-bee.” God hears us, and I think we communicate much more to Him than the sounds themselves imply. No researcher, however, would be able to figure this out.
Two different types of speaking in tongues
I think two distinct phenomena fall under the category “speaking in tongues.” This is a common belief among practitioners, though I never saw it even mentioned in any of the scientific literature, leading me to think the research community is unaware of this aspect of speaking in tongues. One is the type which can be practiced at will by an individual, and which is a highly personal and internal experience. This article is about my experience with that type of tongues. The second is specific messages in a “tongue” usually given to a group, delivered by an individual and often followed by a translation. How do you tell the difference? Personally, I think there is some confusion about where the line falls between the two, even by people familiar with tongues. I’ll give an example. Some time ago my husband went to a prayer meeting, and during open prayer, he had a message for the group in tongues and spoke it out. Now the interesting thing was, while my husband was speaking no one in the group realized he was delivering a message in tongues. They didn’t even recognize his voice. (Everyone was looking down, or had eyes closed for prayer.) This was a group of less than a dozen people who mostly knew my husband quite well. The group thought that one of the men present must be praying aloud in his native language, which none of them understood. Only when my husband followed his tongues message with an interpretation in English did the group realize what had happened. Now these were people used to hearing others speak in tongues, and many of them practiced tongues themselves. And then in this case they didn’t recognize it when they heard it. As my husband told me (I wasn’t present), the message he gave did not have repetitive syllables: it sounded more like someone speaking a foreign language, with many different sounds.
To give an idea of just how repetitive tongues can sound, here is a quote by William Welmes, professor of African languages at the University of California at Los Angeles: "And I must report without reservation that my sample does not sound like a language structurally. There can be no more than two contrasting vowel sounds, and a most peculiarly restricted set of consonant sounds; these combine into a very few syllable clusters which recur many times in various orders. The consonants and vowels do not all sound like English (the glossolaliac’s native language), but the intonation patterns are so completely American English that the total effect is a bit ludicrous." (Christianity Today, Nov. 8, 1963.) As Dr Welmes notes, the number of repeated sounds in the average session of tongues is quite small, repetitive, and similar to the speaker’s normal speaking voice. I’ve noticed all this at prayer with friends. I think this is simply an observation, while Dr Welmes decides these facts make the tongues he heard ‘ludicrous.’ Jumping to value judgments happens to the best of us, but it has the effect of stifling further thought. In short, it is a bad habit intellectually, all due respect to Dr Welmes.
I think the messages in tongues which sound more like a full language are quite rare, and this is why researchers seem unaware of them, and Christians themselves can be caught off guard when they happen. These more complex messages also do not come at will, the way the other sort of tongues can be produced. Just one more example along these lines. A few years ago my husband and I were in a service together, and a young man stood up and told the group that he felt that speaking in tongues was an underutilized gift, that while many of us spoke in tongues we seldom spoke out loud to the group as reported in the New Testament. Therefore, he wanted to give a message in tongues to the group, and hoped that an interpretation would follow. So he began, and what followed was the highly repetitive sounds often heard. Someone in the group stood up in short order and gave the following interpretation: “Bless you, Lord. Bless, bless, I bless you, I bless you, Lord. Bless you, Lord.” The young man’s expression struck me as a mixture of happiness that an interpretation had come so quickly, and disappointment that the message was not more complex. In my opinion, he had delivered a portion of tongues which was the personal prayer sort, the kind tongues speakers can produce whenever they want. This type of tongues has a simple surface meaning, just as it sounds. But the complexity of this communication if spoken between the individual and God could be profound: ‘Bless you, Lord” has the potential to express the experience of a lifetime, the way “bay-bee” did for my daughter. Before the Ancient of Days even an elderly human is an infant being. Ask any parent of a child just learning to speak whether that communication is not rich and profound. It may have no grammar and only a few words, but it is charged with the deep relationship with the mother and father. Often they understand the child’s speech when it is unintelligible to anyone else.
What is speaking in tongues, really? My opinion
Now I am going to get into the realm of complete speculation. I’ve formed an opinion about what tongues is, an opinion I can’t prove. I’ll share it with you, but understand it is just my opinion. Speaking in tongues is a mystery. I don’t think a provable understanding of it is available in this world.
I think when we speak in tongues we are beginning to exercise the language we will speak in heaven, when face to face with God. Possibly, I think this language may be different, or at least different in some respects, for every individual. For instance, I think we may all have different names we use for God, shaped by our experience with Him. I think that this language is more true than any terrestrial language ever can be, in that it is capable of expressing more complexity, and capable of expressing things which are distinctly the experience, feeling or thought of one individual. I think we will be able to communicate in our ‘own’ language more specifically as ourselves than we have ever been able to do in this life, all speaking common languages. I think that in heaven we have fewer barriers between people and between God, but we also become more distinct, more individual than we ever were. I think language will play a role in this. Each person will be capable of communicating things that no other person could. A person's individual language will be one vehicle for this.
I personally think that speaking in tongues is the beginning of the language of the next life. Why so repetitive? We are babies in that life. We have begun it in only the most rudimentary way. Another reason I think this is I have been listening to myself this past year while I speak in tongues. Before this past year, my practice was to take advantage of the alpha state benefits of tongues, and pay little attention to the sounds. But while mulling all these things over I’ve been more aware of sounds. Very occasionally, I’ve heard what seems to be a new word, even sometimes a whole new string of sounds. This has invariably happened at times when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone spiritually, did something I would rather not do for the chance to grow closer to God. I think I may have added a new word to my heaven language. I don’t know what the word means; I don’t know whether I gained it by God’s gift, or whether my language developed a bit as part of a natural process as I pushed my spiritual boundaries: maybe it was a combination of the two.
This is just speculation on my part, but what I am sure of is that tongues has enhanced and deepened my Christian life. I appreciate the research that has been done in the past few decades, though research can tell only so much about a mystery like tongues. But thinking about the research has helped me to analyze my experience, and to understand it better.
Actress Megan Fox On Her Experience Speaking In Tongues
- Megan Fox, Devout Pentecostal, Tells Esquire She Speaks In Tongues
In an interview with Esquire, actress and sexpot Megan Fox describes her surprisingly devout Pentecostal background and familiarity with speaking in tongues. In the piece written by Stephen Marche, the "Transformers" star reveals her childhood growin
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All above photos by Therese Kay Photography
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