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 Is Tongues Actually a Language?

John Hoole January 25, 2009

In our last lesson, we began our quest to answer some questions about "Speaking in Tongues." I mentioned that we are going to take this study at a rather slow pace. I want to make sure we investigate the overwhelming evidence for this wonderful gift.

Let me begin with a story written in Ralph Harris' book, "Spoken by the Spirit." This book was first printed in 1973, and documents nearly 100 verifiable occasions where someone speaking in tongues was heard by a person knowing the language spoken.

This story takes place in 1956 in Yuma, Arizona. Pastor O.W. Kilingsworth was puzzled. Mrs. Marie Wilson often gave an utterance in other tongues during the services at the First Assembly of God, and usually they were interpreted. But this time no interpretation came. Once again the Holy Spirit used Mrs. Wilson for the operation of glossolalia, and again there was no interpretation.

The following day the mystery was explained. The pastor happened to go into the service station operated by F. B. Altstatt.

"Pastor," said Altstatt, "I suppose you were somewhat puzzled about that message in tongues by Sister Wilson last night?"

"I indeed was," replied the pastor.

"Well, the message was for me, and I think it will help you to know what happened." Then he said, "The message was to encourage me, for I understood what was said. The essence of the message was to praise God and to thank Him for His blessings and protection."

"But," he continued, "something even more wonderful happened. I know it must have seemed like two messages, but it was actually one complete message - but in two languages. You know I am of German descent. Well, the first part was in German. And the second part was in the Choctaw Indian dialect. I grew up where there were Indians who spoke this tongue, so I understood it." Afterward, I asked Sister Wilson if she knew either language, and she replied in the negative.

Last week we only answered one question on our list. "What is speaking in tongues?" Let me very briefly review the answer to that question.

The Greek word that is translated as "tongues" is "GLOSSAIS." The root word is Glossa (accent on last syllable). You sometimes hear the term glossolalia as referring to speaking in tongues. That is because LALEO (La-LE-o) is the Greek word for "speak" or "talk."

In Act 2:4, which, in part, reads: "...and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance." In this verse, the Greek word translated "speak" is LALEIN. Its root word is Laleo.

Speaking in other tongues is Holy Spirit inspired speech in a language not known by the speaker. It occurs when a believer allows the indwelling Spirit of God to guide the form of words uttered. When you or I speak in our native tongue, or any language which you have consciously learned, your mind controls what is said. But speaking in tongues is a speaking prompted not by our mind, but by the Holy Spirit, where He decides what is said.

Now let's continue our way through other questions that have been raised.


In the 35 biblical texts that refer to speaking in tongues, and their associated context, there is no mention anywhere of the Greek word, basttalogein. This Greek word is used in Matthew 6:7 (NIV):

7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling [battalogein] like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

No, the concept of "babble" is never used in any association with speaking in tongues by any of the biblical writers that refer to speaking in tongues. The reason? - Speaking in tongues is not what many commentators have assumed it to be, a disordered speech produced by an individual on his own. On the contrary, it is special - supernaturally special - speech in a language other than the speaker's own native language. And it is produced by the Holy Spirit, not the person.

Some have assumed the term "unknown language" means that the tongues are not real languages. That is not accurate. An "unknown" tongue is simply a language unknown to the speaker. It is a mistake that some writers have described speaking in tongues as irrational speech. Worse yet, many have proposed it is not a language at all, but only garbles speech - gibberish.

For one to make such a far-reaching statement presumes the critic knows every one of the thousands of languages in the world today. And to indict tongues with the charge of gibberish - ever - is also to acknowledge one's ignorance of the innumerable times that tongues spoken by Spirit-filled people have been recognized by hearers. I gave one such example at the beginning of this lesson that took place in Russia. I will bring many more occurrences as we continue this series.

The Bible definitely distinguishes between spiritual prayer and our native language prayer. Turn again to 1 Corinthians 14.

1 Corinthians 14:15 NKJV

15 ...I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.

The apostle Paul is speaking of two kinds of prayer. When you pray "with the understanding," it means praying in a language you know. When you pray "with the spirit," it is talking about speaking in tongues. Then it continues the same for singing. But, each kinds of prayer is in some language. Prayer can be in a language unknown by the speaker or a language they know.

In addition, just because it is an unknown tongue does not mean it is meaningless. In other words, it is not some gibberish having no relevance or communication. It is a language begotten of the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 14:10 (NKJV) tells us:

10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance.

The language spoken is not insignificant. Ethnologue is a reference work that catalogs the languages of the world. They say there are 6,912 current, living languages in the world. They do state that not all linguists agree on how to distinguish between dialects. Nevertheless, there are many languages. This reference work does not list languages that have become extinct.

In our lesson a few weeks ago, I mentioned there were three annual holy days among the Jews, where all men were requested to make the trip to Jerusalem. The Feast of Pentecost is one of those times. In Acts 2, you read of 16 different nationalities present, where they heard the 120 speaking in their languages. So the question could be raise; When speaking in tongues, will it be understood by those present? That depends on who the hearers are.

On the Day of Pentecost, there were many people who spoke many languages. But in the local church at Corinth, the tongues were unknown because the hearers were mostly from the same country and did not have the linguistic diversity.

If I stood in the General Assembly of the United Nations and gave a message in Swahili, chances are very good it would be recognized and understood by some present. If I gave the same message in a small church in Washington State, it would probably be an unknown language to everyone present.

When a person prays in tongues where every listener does not understand what was said, there is no way of knowing whether the language is human or not.

But we have one other verse that has to be considered. When I asked the question, "Are tongues real languages?" I did not say, "Are they human languages?" That is 1 Corinthians 13:1, which begins:"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,..." This verse tells us there are not only human languages - but also angelic languages. And we have no means of knowing there is one or many languages spoken by angels.

That is why some will refer to their speaking in tongues as "using their heavenly language." That may not be precisely true, in that we don't know for sure that it is not a human language. But it is heavenly in that it is the Holy Spirit doing the praying through the believer.

In a previous lesson, I related the story of a pastor in Russia who, when he speaks in tongues, it is in English. So those who say speaking in tongues is gibberish and incoherent speech, have no answer to why these happen. In fact, as I was preparing this lesson, I remembered a movie we have had for a couple of decades on VHS. The movie is called, "The God's Must Have Been Crazy." The movie takes place in the Kalahari Desert among a small tribe of people. And when these bush people speak, it is with "clicking" sound, with variation caused by how the mouth is shaped. To many linguists, this speech has none of the normal language qualities.

There is one other example where a known human language has great difficulty, if at all, fitting into the normal linguistic patters of speech. During World War II, the marines used a group of Navaho Indians. A movie of their accomplishments was released in 2002, called WINDTALKERS. The movie takes place in the Pacific theater. My wife, Paula, is a WWII expert and she says they were also used in Italy.

They were also known as Code Talkers. One Code Talker was placed in each Marine division to provide secure tactical communications between the divisions. They used their native tongue to communicate secret messages between them. They were invaluable because no one, using the best linguistics and code breaking techniques could decipher what was being communicated. In what undoubtedly sounded like mere gibberish to the eavesdropping enemy, these "code talkers" used their unique language to coordinate battle plans and strategy. They were used to call in artillery fire, and give status reports.

Now, why do I bring the stories of the Navaho Indians and the tribe in the Kalahari Desert into our study on speaking in tongues? There have been attempts by those who believe speaking in tongues is not biblical for today, who have recorded people who were speaking in tongues, giving the recording to linguistic experts, who came back saying what was called speaking in tongues was not a real language. Their analysis came back saying there were no linguistic traits to what was spoken. Therefore, what was claimed as speaking in tongues was just gibberish. I bring these two examples to show that not all human languages follow the normal patterns of speech.

As mentioned before, there are more than 6,000 languages in the world today. More than 1,000 of them, representing millions of people, have not been reduced to writing. It takes a great deal of presumption on the part of a linguistic expert to deduce from a dozen or more samples of taped tongues, that what was spoken was not a language.

Also damaging to those trying to say speaking in tongues is not a real language are the many times when a person speaking in tongues was understood by someone present. By that, I mean the person speaking in tongues did not know the language they were speaking, but someone present heard and understood what was said, because they spoke that language. I have probably hundreds of documented cases where speaking in tongues was recognized and understood by a hearer.

That said, there is no reason why many others are not also earthly languages. And how many hundreds of human languages have either died out or changed so dramatically as to be unrecognizable today. Then there are the heavenly languages that are not spoken on earth unless it is in tongues by the Holy Spirit through a believer.


I am not sure I have a definitive answer to this question. We have just made the case that when a person speaks in tongues, they are speaking an actual language. It could be a human language spoken somewhere on earth. They might be a human language that is now extinct. But, according the 1 Corinthians 13:1, it could also be the language of angels. I can't say for sure those are the only possibilities.

I have heard or read people that I respect who say that Satan and demons cannot understand what we are saying when we speak in tongues. But I cannot say I know of any Scripture to fully support that thought. And those making such statements don't present information to back up their claim.

Dr. Raymond Cox, an international speaker in the Foursquare Church organization is often published in an Assemblies of God publication, Paraclete. This magazine is no longer published, but back in 1975, he asserted Satan cannot understand tongues.

David Wilkerson called prayer in tongues "the only code the devil can't crack."

Dr. Howard Courtney, another Foursquare Church pastor says of tongues: "The eavesdropping devil can't listen in."

W. Swinburne Smith, and Assemblies of God pastor in England, wrote: "It is my view that by praying in tongues evil intelligences are denied the opportunity of understanding and therefore of hindering the purposes of God which have been made the subject of prayer in the Holy Ghost."

Mahesh Chavda, in his book, "The Hidden Power of Speaking in Tongues," writes "The devil cannot break through the language of the Spirit."

Personally, I would like to think that these claims are true. And because I respect those who have made these claims, I probably am inclined to lean in their direction.

In my humble human logic, my thought progresses along these lines. If it is a human language, whether presently in use or extinct, would not the devil and his demons understand those languages? If not, how would he have ever tempted or deceived those of a language he did not know?

And if the language is an angelic language, since he was once an anointed cherub in Heaven, would he not also know how to converse with angels. We do know, from the book of Job and others, that Satan has been before God complaining about God's protection, as in the case of Job.

What language did he use to communicate. I am not even saying that whatever the language was, that it needed to be audible. We know that God can read the thoughts on our mind before they are spoken. But, unlike God, Satan is not omniscient - he does not know everything. And I don't believe Satan can read our minds like God can. And since tongues is audible, what keeps Satan from understanding the language?

From a purely human logical analysis, I am not sure I can say categorically that Satan and his demons do not understand a person speaking in tongues. But, as much as I am grateful for the mind God has given us, and the ability we have to think in progressively logical patterns, our human minds are not an end-all. There are many things that God does that might defy human logic or understanding.

Early this past week, I was sitting at Starbucks as I do often. I began to ponder this question. It is at times like this when I really wish I had a broader grasp of the Word of God. I asked myself, "what, inside the Bible, would lead people I respect to make this claim?" Two verses came to mind. They are both found in the first book written to the believers in Corinth.

Let me read them both and see if they help us. But I don't want to force the Bible into saying something it might not be saying.

1 Corinthians 14:2 NKJV

2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

1 Corinthians 2:14 NKJV

14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

The first of these two Passages has two phrases worth analyzing. First, it says that when a person speaks in tongues, they are speaking to God. Some have surmised that this is communication between the person and God, and know one else, including angels, knows what is be said. But, although humans cannot know what was communicated, I am not sure, from the information we have, I can say the devil and the angels don't know what was said.

Before looking at a second phrase in this verse, look at how this verse is written in other Bibles.

1 Corinthians 14:2 (Message) - contemporary language

2 If you praise him in the private language of tongues, God understands you but no one else does, for you are sharing intimacies just between you and him.

1 Corinthians 14:2 (New Living) - it is called a 'translation'

2 For if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won't be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious.

As you can see, both of these infer that the speaker in tongues is communicating only with God, and only God understand what is being said. I have looked at every Greek word used in this verse, and while I am no Greek scholar, I can find no reason for being dogmatic that only God understands what is said.

Secondly, the last phrase of 1 Corinthians 14:2 say that when a person speaks in tongues, the person is speaking mysteries. Some might think this is where the inference comes from where only God understands. But the Greek word used here - MUSTERION - is not used in that way any other place. The word, "mystery" in the Bible almost always indicates that which had previously been known only to God, is now being made known.

Let's now investigate the next verse - 1 Corinthians 2:14.

14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

I find in this verse a little more promise, but still not an absolute.

Let me approach this verse in a different manner. I can remember when I was a student at the University of Washington, and there were times when I had lengthy discussions with classmates on the Bible. I would make my case using what I thought was irrefutably logical steps, which, if followed, lead to only one conclusion. But although they could not fault my logic, they just couldn't fully grasp it. Without being frustrated, I would come at the topic from a different angle using the similar logical steps to arrive at the same conclusion.

There were times when my discussion led a person to admit they understood. But they would say something like, "I'm not ready for God yet." And yet there were other times when, no matter the logical approach I used, they still did not grasp the conclusion at the end of the steps of logical progression.

The reason for this is something I had to constantly remind to myself. There are some things I can do as a witness for Christ, but after that, it takes the Holy Spirit to bear fruit. There have been times when, without success, I debated the Bible with a classmate for hours. Then the Holy Spirit would step in and accomplish more in 5 minutes than I could in many hours. I had to remember I could never do the work only the Holy Spirit can do. You and I can be used of God to witness the gospel to someone, but in the end, it is the Holy Spirit that really draws a person to God.

And this verse in 1 Corinthians 2:14 makes this point. The natural man - that's the person without God and the help of God - cannot grasp the things of God by themselves. They are only discerned and understood by the help of the Spirit. Until the Holy Spirit does what only He can do, this verse says that all these spiritual matters are foolishness to the person. It takes the Holy Spirit to open their eyes to see and understand. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says that the message of the cross is foolishness to the worldly person.

I have said all that to ask if this might also apply to the devil. Could speaking in tongues be of such a nature that its message is only spiritually understood? You might retort, "Isn't Satan a spiritual being, and aren't the angels, both good and evil, spirits?"

This verse does not say that it takes a spirit being, as opposed to a natural human, that will be able to understand spiritual things. It says that spiritual things are discerned - understood - in a spiritual manner.

Let me proceed with a question.


I think the devil has so deluded himself that he believes he can win. He at one time was the anointed cherub (Ezekiel 28:14). As such, he was one of the closest of angels to God Himself, and was given much authority. And yet he deluded himself into believing he could take the place of God on the throne. I think he is still trying to take that throne.

He knows the Bible from front to back far greater than we do. And yet, I ask if he really knows the full impact and meaning of all that is written there. Having said all this, I ask, "Is speaking in tongues only understood by spiritual discernment?" And, does the devil have the needed spiritual discernment? Still, after all this discussion, I am not sure I can say whether or not Satan understands us when we pray in tongues.

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