Tongues were Real Languages

Tongues were Real Languages

by Michael J. Penfold

“Speaking in tongues” has been a leading feature of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement ever since its inception. The first supposed occurrence of “tongues speaking” in the modern era took place at 11.00pm on Jan 1st 1901 in Topeka, Kansas, USA, when Agnes Osman claimed to possess and use this gift.

Aside from the historical fact that the gift of tongues ceased functioning with the death of the 12 apostles, the greatest proof that modern ‘speaking in tongues’ is not Biblical is this: Biblical tongues were real languages, while modern ‘tongues’ are not.

Evidence that Biblical ‘speaking in tongues’ was a divinely-given ability to speak in real known foreign languages that the recipient had neither learned nor practised can be summarised as follows:

  1. The Greek word for tongues (‘glossa’) is often used in the New Testament to describe real languages (Rev 5:9, 7:9 etc).
  2. In the first instance of ‘tongues speaking’ in the New Testament – Acts 2:8 – the Jewish audience, drawn from 17 different people groups in the Middle East, said they could hear the Galilean apostles speaking in 17 different languages/tongues. This was ‘the miracle of Pentecost’ as far as the audience was concerned. The fact that the apostles could speak all of these actual languages and dialects caused consternation among the hearers.
  3. In each later incident of ‘tongues speaking’ in the book of Acts (Ch 2, 10 & 19) the same Greek word for ‘tongues’ is used, giving every indication that we are to understand it was the same gift and the same sign in every case. When the Lord said “these signs shall follow” and included “tongues” in the list, He did not say “sometimes it will be real languages and other times it will be totally unrecognisable” (Mark 16:17-20).
  4. In addition to using the Greek word ‘glossa’ for tongues in Acts 2, another Greek word – dialectos – is also used (Acts 2:6 & 8). That is to say, such was the miraculous nature of this gift that the Apostles actually spoke in various localised dialects of certain languages. The Phrygians and Pamphylians both spoke Greek, but in different idioms; the Parthians, Medes and Elamites all spoke Persian, but in different provincial forms. All of this indicates the Apostles were speaking, and the audience was hearing, real languages and dialects.
  5. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:10 speaks of distinguishable kinds of ‘languages/tongues’. “To another, different kinds of tongues.” Clearly, the Biblical ‘tongues’ were neither “ecstatic ramblings” nor the free flowing mumbo-jumbo of a widely used but learned “baby talk” (hosta-la-shondai-soleke-mambeli etc.). Biblical tongues were distinguishable real languages.
  6. The use of the “gift of tongues” is likened to the actual Assyrian language in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. In this passage the Apostle Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12, where God warns that His people Israel will hear the language of Assyrian invaders who He will send against them because of their sin. On this fact hinges Paul’s argument that tongues are a sign of God’s judgment, not to those who believe but to those who believe not (1 Cor 14:22). The argument of this passage carries no weight if tongues are not real languages.
  7. The Apostle Paul says he spoke actual words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:19). In the use of the gift of languages/tongues, actual words must be used. Today’s ‘tongues’ however, have no distinguishing vocabulary, no grammatical features and very limited vowel sounds. William Samarin, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto, who travelled world recording ‘tongues speaking’, concluded; “In every case, glossolalia – that’s tongues-speaking – turns out to be linguistic nonsense’” (Tongues of Men and Angels, 1972). William E. Welmers, Professor of African Languages at the University of California in Los Angeles wrote: “…from the viewpoint of a Christian linguist the modern phenomenon of glossolalia would appear to be a linguistic fraud and monstrosity, given even the most generous interpretation of 1 Cor 12-14” (Christianity Today, Nov 8, 1963, p. 127-8). Dr. Eugene A. Nida, an outstanding linguist, subjected recordings of ‘tongues’ to a group of expert linguists and found that “the vowels used were almost exclusively i, a and o…[and that] there was a very high repetition of individual sounds and syllables…a pronounced tendency towards recurring sequences…a complete lack of pauses, hesitations and control…this is entirely abnormal in linguistic structure” (The Alliance Witness, Mar 2 1966, p. 7).

Whereas, in the New Testament, speaking in tongues was an unmistakable ‘gift’ that not everyone possessed (“Do all speak with tongues?” 1 Cor 12:30), in the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic, anyone can learn to “do it”. It is practised by Protestants, Roman Catholics and Mormons, and is common among the religions of the East. In The Alpha Course by Nicky Gumbel, actual ‘instructions’ are given as to how to start speaking in tongues. Says Gumbel:

  1. Ask God to forgive you for anything that could be a barrier to receiving.
  2. Turn from any area of your life that you know is wrong.
  3. Ask God to fill you with His Spirit and to give you the gift of tongues. Go on seeking Him until you find. Go on knocking until the door opens. Seek God with all your heart.
  4. Open your mouth and start to praise God in any language but English or any other language known to you.
  5. Believe that what you receive is from God. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have made it up. (It is most unlikely that you have). [Emphasis added. What a telling statement!]
  6. Persevere. Languages take time to develop. Most of us start with a very limited vocabulary. Gradually it develops. Tongues is like that. It takes time to develop the gift. But don’t give up.

(These instructions are taken from “Questions of Life” by Nicky Gumbel, page 147, Kingsway, 1993).

Former Pentecostal minister George E. Gardiner says: “The desire for experience coupled with instruction, motivation, and the approval of the peer group produces ecstatic speech. I have publicly said many times, ‘Give me a group of people who will do what I tell them to do; sing, relax, anticipate and go through the right motions, and it will be only a matter of time before some will speak ecstatically!’ It is a psychological phenomenon and bears no resemblance to the tongues of the Bible” (The Corinthian Catastrophe, Kregel, p. 53).

The bottom line is clear. The modern worldwide phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” is “made-up mumbo-jumbo” that anyone can learn to speak, whether a Christian or not, but real Biblical “speaking in tongues” was a divinely-given ability to speak in a real known foreign language that the user had neither learned nor practised.

Michael J. Penfold (

(Photo above: Corinth, Greece, at sunset)