Is Speaking In Tongues Always A Known Language?

Glossolalia and the Main Purpose of Speaking in Tongues

The doctrine of Spirit Baptism and gift of tongues has received much debate.  What isn’t always discussed are the spoken languages themselves.  At a recent discipleship class, the question was asked if speaking in tongues is always a known language or can it be only known to God?  The answer is found in the Greek word glossolalia and the main purpose of speaking in tongues.

Tongues-Language

Glossolalia: Speaking with an Unlearned Language through the Spirit.

Sometimes someone can completely understand someone speaking in tongues.  This is what happened in Acts 2. Many have seen examples of this since then, especially in the mission field.  People speaking perfect English, for example, when they didn’t know English at all.1

Some have connected this with the Greek word xenolalia (“miraculous use of a known language not learned by traditional methods.”2), but scripture really doesn’t make this distinction. In fact, xenolalia could include those who are able to learn languages quickly and thus we would be missing the Spirit-inspired point to speaking in tongues.#Glossolalia is not simply noise or babbling, rather an unlearned #Spirit-inspired language. Click To Tweet

Other times people speak in a language that can only be supernaturally understood.  This doesn’t mean that the person isn’t speaking in an actual language.  It simply means that the language is not widely known.  “There are more than 4,000 languages and dialects in the world today and probably another 4,000 to 5,000 ancient languages, so the Holy Spirit has plenty to choose from.”3 Glossolalia is not simply noise or babbling, rather an unlearned Spirit-inspired language.4  Stanley Horton makes a valuable point:

“If speaking in tongues seems like nonsense syllables, so did the languages of the Assyrians to the Hebrews (Isaiah 28:11, 13).  To those who do not know Hebrew, it would sound like nonsense syllables.  “Our Father” in Hebrew is pronounced ‘ah-vee-noo.’…Since tongues is often a matter of worship and praise, spontaneous utterance and repetition should be expected, as in many psalms.”5

With that said, Paul does make mention of tongues being the “languages of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). It appears that it’s possible that languages could be known on earth or among angels.  While no consensus is made on that front, it is generally accepted among Pentecostal scholars that glossolalia is indeed a language (implied by the meaning of the word).6

Inspired Prophetic Speech

While this discussion can be overwhelming at times, the challenge is to remember that the purpose of speaking in tongues is mainly about inspired prophetic speech – not the language itself.

During Spirit Baptism, speaking in tongues is about submitting ourselves to God.  God, in return, supernaturally inspires our speech as we are empowered to reach those who aren’t in the Kingdom.  The importance of this elevates even more when we realize that Joel prophetically announced this would happen in the “last days.”7 No matter the language, speaking in tongues points to the Kingdom and the fact that Christ can return at any moment.8The purpose of speaking in #tongues is mainly about Inspired Prophetic Speech – not the language itself. Click To Tweet

If spoken publicly as a gift, tongues must be translated – either supernaturally, through the gift of interpretation, or through someone who speaks that language.9  When done correctly, a message spoken in tongues is an inspired prophetic message from God himself (through the Holy Spirit).

If spoken privately, as a prayer language (1 Corinthians 14:13-19), the inspiration is between the believer and God.  As Karl Barth penned, speaking in tongues is “an attempt to express the inexpressible.”10 In these prayerful moments we can connect with God’s will and allow the Spirit to lead us.

In any case, one thing remains the same – speaking in tongues is inspired prophetic speech, enabled through the Holy Spirit, to point us to the Kingdom and to stir us to become witnesses for Jesus as we await his return.

Your turn…

Question: Have you ever experienced speaking in tongues or seen someone speak in tongues? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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Andrew lives in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland with his wife, Deidre, and two children (Rae and Pierson), where he is the Lead Pastor of Bethel Pentecostal Church. He is a graduate of both Memorial University (BBA) and Tyndale Seminary (MTS). His passion is to help people become true disciples of Jesus.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.