New Psychological Study of Tongue-Speaking

By Steve Wolfgang

Readers of this journal are no doubt well aware of the biblical teaching on miracles (including glossolalia or the ability to speak in languages other than one’s native tongue). The Scriptures clearly teach that when such ability was present in New Testament days it was indeed miraculous, consisting of the ability to speak in a known language which one had not studied and which could be understood by those who had learned that language; that it was available to apostles and to those upon whom they laid their hands; that its purpose was to confirm that the speaker proclaimed a message from God; and that such confirming signs were temporary and would “fail, cease, and vanish” when God’s revelation was complete (Acts 2:4-16; 8:12-19; Heb. 2:14; Mk. 16:14-20; 1 Cor. 13:8-13). These concepts are well-known to careful Bible students, and it is not the purpose of this article to discuss them.

However, one is sometimes confronted with the claims of a cheap imitation of New Testament miracles in the form of modern-day “tongue-speakers. ” An argument frequently made by “speakers” of the gibberish or pseudo-languages which they pass off as “tongues” is that “it works,” that is, that many people can learn to speak such :’languages” without training. Thus, it is argued, such ability to ‘speak” must be construed as being produced by the Holy Spirit never mind that it is still not a true, understandable language as in the New Testament.

A recent study by Canadian psychologists puts the lie to such claims. The study is reported in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (95: 1), February 1986, pp. 21-23. Psychologists at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario invited practiced glossolalists into a sound studio, where they recorded their utterances. These tapes (audio and video) were “obtained from speakers who defined their glossolalia as religious activity, belonged to religious groups that encouraged glossolalia, and had been speaking glossolalia, regularly for over two years” (p. 22).

The psychologists then assembled a volunteer group of 60 Carleton University undergraduates (ages 18-44 years). Of the 36 men and 24 women, “none spoke glossolalia or had heard it spoken,” and several students who had heard or spoken glossolalia were excluded from the group. This group of non-glossolalists was then given the following assignment:

Your task today is to listen to a 1 -minute tape of a person speaking pseudo language. As you listen to the tape, try to get a sense of the language rather than trying to memorize certain phrases. Notice any rhythm, repetitions, or patterns in the utterances. Immediately afterward you will be asked to produce pseudo language yourself for a 30second period. This will be taped. Pay close attention.

After listening to a sixty-second taped sample of glossolalia, the subjects were asked “to do their best to speak pseudo language continuously for 30 seconds.” These “baseline” attempts were likewise tape-recorded.

Half of the subjects (having previously been designated as a “control group”), were then dismissed and asked to return in several days. The other half began immediately to undergo the first of several training periods, in which they listened to further samples of glossolalia, by both male. and female demonstrators, using both audio- and video-tape. Modeling and “how-to-do-it” type instructions were given, and then the subjects were asked to try to speak pseudo language themselves for thirty seconds, during which they received encouragement and direct instruction and feedback from the experimenter. A second training session several days later followed similar procedures, but utilized demonstration samples from different speakers. In both training sessions, the subjects in that group were allowed a “practice” session to see how well they could imitate or speak in pseudo language.

Following their own training sessions, each person in the experimental group was asked to make a final attempt to produce a thirty-second sample of glossolalia. The control group, which had heard only the initial demonstration and had not been trained in the interim, returned and heard only a final one-minute sample, following which each individual was asked to produce a thirtysecond continuous sample of pseudo language.

Then the “baseline” sample (taken from everyone in the control group and the experimental group alike) and the final sample from all the subjects were judged by

Two judges, one of whom was blind to subjects’ treatment or session, rated each baseline and postlest pseudolanguage segment. Both judges who were experienced listeners of religious glossolalia, and in addition, the judge who was blind to subjects’treatment or session had, for over a year, been a speaker of religious glossolalia.

The results are intriguing.

The present findings are consistent with the social learning hypothesis that glossolalia, can be acquired with relative ease by almost anyone with the requisite motivations. All of our subjects were unfamiliar with glossolalia, prior to their participation in this study. Nevertheless, after only two brief training sessions that included practice at glossolalia, encouragement, and modeling, 70 percent of them spoke fluent glossolalia throughout the entire posttest trial and all of the remainder spoke recognizable glossolalia throughout most of the posttest interval. Importantly, 21 percent of our subjects spoke fluent glossolalia. after their one baseline exposure. This finding is consistent with reports indicating that, in religious groups, some individuals begin speaking glossolalia on their first try and after only brief exposure to other glossolalics (Samarin, 1972).

Although our posttest was only 30 s long, it is worth noting that in naturalistic religious settings, even experienced tongue speakers often maintain uninterrupted glossolalia for only relatively short intervals, and they frequently intersperse their glossolalia with meaningful utterances of varying length (e.g., thanks or praises to God; Samarin, 1972). Moreover, glossolalia invariably involves a high level of redundancy. By periodically reorganizing relatively few basic sounds, even the novice speakers can continue glossolalia for extended periods of time if they so choose (Samarin, 1972). For example, the two experimenters in the present study learned glossolalia preexperimentally by using the same procedures that were later administered to subjects. With relatively little practice, both experimenters found it easy to maintain fluent glossolalia for as long as they wished.

Our findings that glossolalia can be easily learned through direct instruction, along with demonstrations that tongue speakers can initiate and terminate glossolalia. upon request and can exhibit glossolalia in the absence of any indexes of trance (Samarin, 1972; Spanos & Hewitt, 1979), support the hypothesis that glossolalic utterances are goal-directed actions rather than involuntary happenings.

The references cited in the articles include William J. Samarin’s interesting books, Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (New York: Macmillan, 1972). As is often the case with psychological research, this study merely confirms in “scientific” dress what many individuals who have observed glossolalia or otherwise dealt with modern-day tonguespeakers already knew by observation or even intuition: Twentieth-century pseudolanguages are learned behavior, acquired through motivation to imitate practiced glossolalists. They are not even biblical in the sense that what is uttered is not true language, but pseudolanguage – and not even this can be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit, but rather to the “desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:3).

Guardian of Truth XXX: 23, pp. 707-708
December 4, 1986