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Speaking in Tongues

Scientific studies

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Evaluation of "tongues" by linguists and others:

Two secular researchers conducted studies of Glossolalia in the 1970's:

bullet Felicitas Goodman, who used an anthropological approach across a range of cultures, 1,2 and
bullet William Samarin who used a linguistic approach. 3,4,5,6

Some conclusions and opinions of linguists are:

bullet William Samarin wrote:

"When the full apparatus of linguistic science comes to bear on glossolalia, this turns out to be only a facade of language ó although at times a very good one indeed. For when we comprehend what language is, we must conclude that no glossa, no matter how well constructed, is a specimen of human language, because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives." 7

bullet J.G. Melton 8 wrote briefly of Samarin's findings, who concluded that glossolalia is not a true language. Only a few consonants and vowels appear in it.
bullet An academic Internet mailing list, "The Linguist List" focused on glossolalia in early 1995. 9
bullet Some of the subscribers noted that glossolalia had a simple primitive structure, and exhibited very frequent repetition of individual sounds.
bullet One commented that the words spoken within a given church tended to be similar, and unlike the sounds heard within in another congregation.
bullet Another commented that his observations among American churchgoers showed that they "seem to latch onto and then repeat sounds that sound foreign to them, and intersperse the name 'Jesus' in between the sounds."
bullet Still another said that: "there are two continental charismatic traditions - a French one concentrating on melodious spontaneous song and a German/English one concentrating on speech."
bullet A subscriber stated that:
"Some years ago as an undergraduate, I memorized the first eleven lines to Beowulf.  Occasionally I recited them to people (I still do).  Once I recited them to a friend from Alabama, and she told me that if I did that back where she came from, folks would say I was speaking in tongues."
bullet The moderator noted that the:
"... native language of the speaker was a pretty good predictor of the kinds of sounds that would occur in glossolalia; one general pattern was that sounds perceived as generally marking "foreign" speech (whatever that may mean) would occur, while sounds perceived as typical of the native language would not.  Thus, for American English speakers, /r/ would be rendered as the alveolar trill, never as the American retroflex; on the other hand, these speakers would not include the low front vowel in their glossolalia, /ae/-as-digraph, because that's perceived as a typically "American" sound for some reason.  On the other hand, truly exotic sounds--those not typical of the native language, but that don't happen to be familiar to speakers of the language--would tend not to occur:  American English speakers don't produce clicks in their glossolalia."
bullet D.J. James quotes some conclusions of William Samarin:
"When the full apparatus of linguistic science comes to bear on glossolalia, this turns out to be only a facade of language ó although at times a very good one indeed. For when we comprehend what language is, we must conclude that no glossa, no matter how well constructed, is a specimen of human language, because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives."

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A direct study of the reality of glossolalia in a church environment:

One analytical study of glossolalia was performed by an unknown person or persons. 10 One individual's ecstatic speech was tape recorded and played back separately to many individuals who sincerely and devoutly believed that they had received the gift of interpreting  tongues. Their interpretations were quite inconsistent. e.g. one said that "the utterances referred to a prayer for the health of someone's children." Another interpreted the speech as "praising God for a recent and successful church, fund-raising effort." It is obvious from that study that those particular interpreters were unable to extract significant meaning out of the glossolalia. However, they were probably not conscious of that fact.

Perhaps distortion, lack of frequency range or noise in the tape recorder inhibited the interpreters' ability to understand the glossolalia. Perhaps the lack of facial expressions or body English would inhibit the interpretation. It would be useful to people's understanding of the gift of tongues if this type of test were replicated "live" in different locations, under controlled conditions by linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, or other professionals.

This appears to be only a pilot study. It would have to be replicated by others in order to establish the accuracy of the findings.

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Brain scans of people speaking in tongues:

A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine used Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) to analyze brain activity within individuals as they spoke in tongues. It was the first study of this kind. During this technique, a small quantity of a radioactive drug is injected into a person's vein. The scanner then makes detailed images of tissues as cells take up the drug.

During an interview on 2006-SEP-20 by Steve Paulson, Andrew Newberg -- Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies and Director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, at the University of Pennsylvania -- said that the region of the brain involved in language is not activated when a person speaks in tongues. He said:

"Speaking in tongues is a very unusual kind of vocalization. It sounds like the person is speaking a language, but itís not comprehensible. And when people have done linguistic analyses of speaking in tongues, it does not correspond to any clear linguistic structure. So it seems to be distinct from language itself. Thatís interesting because we did not see activity in the language areas of the brain. Of course, if somebody is a deep believer in speaking in tongues, the source of the vocalizations is very clear. Itís coming from outside the person. Itís coming through the spirit of God. 11

They found decreased activity in the brain's frontal lobes, an area associated with self-control. One of the researchers, Andrew Newberg, said: "Itís fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak." The data partly confirms the subjects' beliefs. In fact, the subjects are not in control of their usual language centers as they spoke in tongues.

Newberg, who is Principal Investigator in the study, was later interviewed about his team's article in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. He stated:

"We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain. Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak. Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in tongues."

Newberg went on to explain,

"These findings could be interpreted as the subject's sense of self being taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it's being taken over by another part of the brain, but we couldn't see, in this imaging study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity -- looking at what actually happens to the brain -- when someone is speaking in tongues. This study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self."

The study also compared the brain activity in the same subjects as they sang gospel music. Newbert said: "We noticed a number of changes" including in brain regions tied to emotions and the sense of self. 12,13

This is a SPECT scan of a person speaking in tongues:

bullet Activity in the thalamus region (bottom arrow) is increased.
bullet Activity in the left basal ganglia (top arrow) is decreased; this region is involved with focusing attention and emotional responses.

Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. F. Goodman, "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1969), Pages 227 to 239.
  2. F. Goodman, "Speaking in Tongues. A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia," University of Chicago Press, (1972).
  3. W. Samarin, "Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of Pentecostalism," Macmillan (1972).
  4. W. Samarin, "Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia," Language in Society, (1972), 1:121-130.
  5. W. Samarin, "Glossolalia as Regressive Speech," Language and Speech (1973), 16:77-89.
  6. W. Samarin, "Review of Goodman (1972)," Language (1974), 5:207-213.
  7. D. J. Janes, "Glossolalia: The Gift of Gibberish," available at the Institute for First Amendment Studies, at:
  8. J.G. Melton, Ed., "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume 1, Triumph Books, Tarrytown, NY, (1991), Page 41 to 47.
  9. Jussi Karlgren, "Speaking in tongues," The Linguist List, #6.385. A compilation of responses by linguists to a question on the structure of Glossolalia. Available at
  10. Jeff Wehr, "Speaking in Tongues," Our Firm Foundation, Vol. 11, #11, 1996-NOV-11. Available at: 
  11. Steve Paulson, "Divining the Brain," Templeton-Cambridge Journalism, 2006-SEP-20, at:
  12. Andrew Newberg, Nancy Wintering, Donna Morgan, and Mark Waldman, "The Measurement of Regional Cerebral Blood Flow During Glossolalia: a Preliminary SPECT Study." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging for 2006-NOV. This is the official publication of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.
  13. "Language Center of the Brain Is Not Under the Control of Subjects Who 'Speak in Tongues'," University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, 2006-OCT-30, at:

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Copyright © 1998, to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-NOV-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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