Questions and Responses 

Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services

Year 2015


The gift of tongues is one of the many charisms given by the Holy Spirit for the upbuilding of the Church. The Scriptural basis for this gift is found in the risen Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel in Mark 16:17 and in two other books of the New Testament: Acts and 1 Corinthians.

The gift of tongues has been the subject of many studies, and various terms are associated with it, including glossolalia, xenoglossia and xenolalia. What is the distinction among these terms?

The word glossolalia is derived from the Greek phrase glōssais lalein, which literally means “to speak in tongues”. In Christian theology glossolalia usually refers to speech-like sounds given by the Holy Spirit for use in private or public prayer.

The term xenoglossia comes from the Greek words xenos, “foreign”, and glōssa, “tongue” and means “speaking in a foreign language”. Similarly, xenolalia comes from xenos, “foreign”, and lalia, “speaking”, and also means “speaking in a foreign language”. These terms are often used synonymously, and refer to speaking or writing in a human language that one has not acquired by natural means.

In the New Testament, Paul and Luke do present the gift of tongues in different ways. Luke depicts tongues as a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, when they “declared the wonders of God” in different languages and dialects (Acts 2:1-13). It is sometimes argued that the real miracle at Pentecost was one of hearing, and that the “tongues” were in fact a form of ecstatic utterance rather than an identifiable language. But this seems to be an incorrect reading of Acts, which records a “speaking in other tongues” as well as a hearing in the “native language” of those present. Luke thus regards the Pentecost phenomenon as xenolalia, speaking in actual human languages unknown to the speakers.

Luke records further utterances in tongues in Acts 10:46, when the Spirit comes upon the gentile household of Cornelius, and again in 19:6, when the Ephesian disciples of John the Baptist receive the Spirit. On these occasions there is no suggestion that the tongues were languages actually recognized by any of the hearers. But the content of the speech in tongues in all three texts is the mighty works of God. Although the term “mighty works” is used only in Acts 2:11, the related verb “extol” is found in 10:46 and 19:17, and it suggests that what they spoke in tongues was praise of God.

Paul lists tongues among the gifts of the Spirit in his instructions to the Corinthians about the charismatic gifts (1 Cor 12:10; 14:2, 5). Paul seems to have in mind two different forms of the gift: tongues as a public message for the assembly and tongues as a form of prayer.

Tongues in the first sense is a prophetic gift whose understanding requires the presence of an interpreter (1 Cor 14:26-28). The interpreter does not translate the message but rather is moved to convey its general meaning. Paul sees a variety of functions to be fulfilled by this gift, including praise of God and revelation to the congregation.

In the second sense, Paul says tongues is directed to God not to the neighbor, for it is a gift of prayer rather than of preaching (1 Cor 14:2). It is a gift for inspired charismatic praise and perhaps for communicating inner groanings and longings which the person cannot put into words (see Rom 8:26-27). Thus we are told in 1 Cor 14:14-17 that this is a gift of prayer, of praise, and thanksgiving. Its primary function is not, therefore, intelligible communication. Such a prayer involves words and sounds that do not belong to any existing language.

Even though the one who speaks in tongues does not know the content, the person is aware that he or she is saying it. But it is to be noted that the person is in control and is able to decide when to start and when to stop, and is not involuntarily carried away by the gift. The value of this kind of prayer of praise lies precisely in its non-rational character, which allows the Holy Spirit to bypass the mind and to move the human spirit to pray as depth speaking to depth (Rom 8:26-27).

In the charismatic renewal today, the second kind of tongues is by far more common, although there have also been many reported instances of the first kind.

It should be noted that glossolalia and xenoglossia are not a guarantee that a speaker is being moved by the Holy Spirit, since Satan attempts to counterfeit every gift of the Spirit. Paul therefore cautions the Corinthians to discern every spiritual gift based on the criteria of truth (1 Cor 12:1-3) and love (1 Cor 13:1-3), and he reminds them that the gifts have value only insofar as they are exercised in right order for the building up of the body of Christ (1 Cor 14:39-40).