The excellent Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4 has signed off until April. The last edition was particularly interesting and dealt with glossolalia, or speaking in tongues (go to the Word of Mouth page on the Radio4 website and click on "Listen to the latest edition"; it starts approximately at 7’40” and finishes 19’21” and probably won’t be there very long). The programme included testimonies of people who have experienced glossolalia, and who explained that when they are speaking in this way, they are expressing themselves in a language that God understands, the language of heaven. They also interviewed a neurologist who has studied subjects particularly gifted at speaking in tongues. His research used brain imaging to track changes in blood flow in the brains of his subjects. He found that the frontal lobes involved in controlling actions and speech shut down when people speak in tongues. According to what your beliefs are, this might either suggest that God takes over people’s brains and talks through them, or that they get themselves in a state where they just lose all control and deliver incoherent speech as a result.

By |2007-01-25T15:19:45+00:00January 25th, 2007|Words|5 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Victor Dewsbery January 25, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    As a freelance translator AND a Christian with experience of “speaking in tongues”, perhaps it is worth adding a personal comment here.
    I have never experienced the “losing control” phenomenon, and I do not feel that my brain is being taken over. I can decide of my own free will when to begin speaking in tongues, I remain aware of my surroundings while doing so, and I can decide when to stop.
    In my work and daily life I use my two working languages (English and German) very consciously, but speaking in tongues is a completely different activity, and I find that I can’t speak in tongues and analyse what I’m doing at the same time. (I tried that a few times when I was new to this gift, but found that it was like a two-way switch – I could operate in “faith speaking” mode or in “analysis mode”, but not in both at the same time).
    Like the people interviewed in the programme, I feel that it is a way of drawing close to God, and I find that it helps me to relax in my relationship with God and to focus my mind on God, and sometimes it leads me to new ideas or lines of thinking which I feel are guided by God. So although it involves a deliberate decision to speak in a non-cognitive way, it can lead back to new lines of cognitive thinking.
    I have never “understood” any “meaning” in these prayers, but I know people who experience the “gift of interpretation” and find that they can give a follow-on message which derives in some way from a prayer in tongues and is felt to be “right” by the person who prayed in tongues (although it does not seem to be interpreting in a linguistic sense).

  2. céline January 26, 2007 at 7:35 am

    Thanks for this contribution Victor. I have only witnessed someone speaking in tongues once, and he did seem to be in some kind of trance, unaware of his surroundings, and to me this seemed to fit with the loss of control suggested by this research.
    In your experience, it does sound like there is a certain loss of control over what you’re doing, but that you still retain some grip over reality. Maybe there are degrees of “letting oneself go” when speaking in tongues?

  3. Victor Dewsbery January 26, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Yes, there do seem to be degrees of “letting oneself go” or, to put it the other way round, degrees of receptiveness to a mystical experience of God. Some of the New Testament accounts (and some modern accounts) do indicate a greater loss of “control” than I experience.
    But as you observe, my experience does involve a certain loss of control, in that speaking in tongues seems detached from my conscious control of language and my ability to analyse. As the neurologist on the programme suggested, some areas of the brain seem to become inactive for the duration (although I can “switch them on again” more or less instantly and at will).

  4. sumrandom January 29, 2007 at 7:32 am

    May I just say first up, that I haven’t yet listened to the radio program because of time constraints. I did, however, do some reading a while back about a phonemic analysis of glossolalia (sorry I don’t have a reference handy) and found it interesting to note that a person speaking in tongues will rarely, if ever, produce speech sounds not found in the language(s) that they speak fluently (I don’t recall the study including bilinguals though, maybe there’s a thesis in that). This, to me, doesn’t sound like something that is completely independant of the speech functions of the brain. I look forward to listening to this program and what it has to say about the phenomena.
    oh and great blog by the way 🙂

  5. nakedpastor February 1, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Victor told me about your site, and thought it was interesting that we shared somewhat similar names… the naked part anyway. I just wrote a short review of a local paper’s report on the same studies. Glossalalia is only a minor part of the research. It is interesting, however, that while speaking in tongues, the practitioner’s part of the brain that controls language decreases in activity. I personally don’t find this curious because I’ve never believed glossalalia is a form of language. Interesting post!

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