Glossolalia Meets Glosso-Psychology: Why Speaking in Tongues Persists in Charismatic Christian and Pentecostal Gatherings

By Semenyna, Scott; Schmaltz, Rodney | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Glossolalia Meets Glosso-Psychology: Why Speaking in Tongues Persists in Charismatic Christian and Pentecostal Gatherings


Semenyna, Scott, Schmaltz, Rodney, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


OF RELIGIOUS PHENOMENON THAT HAVE BEEN deemed both testable and meriting examination, glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") stands out as a brash and unique example of purported religious experience. With strange utterances like "bule te skuru te sinte omkoton, stinte te leteo de tinka ong, lepe lute impre sute comp intope," (1) there are various opinions on what exactly produces glossolalia. These range from psychopathology, to altered states of consciousness, to social learning, and of course the attribution of spiritual forces that typifies explanations by most individuals engaging in the behavior. Touching on each of these in turn, we propose social learning as the most reasonable explanation of the phenomenon, especially considering the powerful social forces that sustain and validate this religious experience.

The Nature of Glossolalia

Glossolalia, which is most typically found among charismatic Christian and Pentecostal groups, is a pseudo-language spoken almost exclusively by adherents of these religions, (2,3,4) although some charismatic cults also report this behavior. (5) As one researcher defines it, "glossolalia or speaking in tongues is a verbal utterance in a religious context, which is not in the speaker's own language." (6) People are taught that "speaking in tongues is ... a prayer language that affords supernatural communication with God that transcends both human and demonic understanding." (7) Analysis of glossolalics from around the world has revealed that the pseudo-language is lacking in consistent syntax or semantic meaning, is often rhythmic or poetic in nature, and has phonemic properties (sounds used to build language) that share a striking similarity with the speaker's native tongue. (8,9,10,11)

The assorted samples are also devoid of any consistency that would allow for meaningful comparison or translation, (12) and glossolalia is not used as a means of communication between members of groups encouraging its use--although sometimes "translation" by a leader is involved. (13) These interpretations are usually in line with, and supportive of whatever message or teaching has been given that day, in some way giving divine legitimacy to what is said.

Causes of Glossolalia

It has been suggested that glossolalia is akin to other psychopathology that produces aberrant speech. This, however, is challenged by numerous scientific findings. It was found, for example, that glossolalic speech differed significantly from "word-salad" which can be found in some people who suffer from schizophrenia. (14) Furthermore, neuroticism was found to actually be negatively correlated with charismatic experience, which includes glossolalia. (15) Other researchers explicitly state that glossolalia is not psychopathological (although some psychopathology shares similarities), and that there is no DSM listing of glossolalia being a symptom of psychosis. (16) Running counter to the psychopathology explanation is the fact that glossolalics tend to show lower rates of depression than non-glossolalics, (17) tend to be less neurotic, and actually have increased emotional stability. (18) This evidence leaves those seeking to understand this phenomenon looking outside of mental disorders to explain what is going on in the glossolalic's mind and social context.

While there is little evidence to suggest that glossolalia is related to mental illness, there is some research indicating that speaking in tongues may be explained in terms of altered states of consciousness. The basic tenet of this position is that individuals who find themselves in states of heightened suggestibility will be able to somewhat reliably reproduce a pseudo-language that (1) they know or believe to exist and (2) have heard exemplars speaking. This idea is bolstered by the fact that most glossolalia occurs (at least initially) in the context of large group meetings, characterized by rhythmic music, compelling leaders, and concentration on what is happening and being taught. …

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