Is speaking in tongues a human language or something else?
We really seek to understand speaking in tongues. It is one of the strangest gifts that the Spirit imparts to us. We have so many questions about it because it is a unique and unusual gift. So I will seek to answer your question as well as I can.
Paul mentions mysteries as one of the communications of speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:2) In the third category of spiritual gifts, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues, we speak mysteries, thank God (1 Corinthians 14:16-17), edify our spirits, and intercede with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27), to name a few.
So many of us would love to know what we’re saying when we speak in tongues. When you hear a message in tongues in a service and hear the interpretation, sometimes they do not line up. The person may be saying a couple syllables here and there and then the message is very long
Perhaps the best answer comes from 1 Corinthians 13:1. In a continuation of talking about gifts, Paul lays out the foundation of love. But in that first verse of the thirteenth chapter, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…”
We are familiar with the tongues of men. We speak human languages and with some study, we can learn other languages that other humans speak. This is clarification that one of the types of language, which Paul refers to as various kinds of languages, that we speak could be a human language that someone can know and interpret.
An example of this happens when the apostles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1-13. The apostles receive Spirit baptism and speak in other tongues as the Spirit enables them (Acts 2:4). And then in Acts 2:6, the people say that they can hear the messages in their own languages.
The neat thing is that there are people from many different areas of the Roman Empire. These are not all Jews speaking Aramaic. They are from many different areas, Jews that are visiting for the Feast of Pentecost. Luke outlines about 16 different people groups that can hear the praises of God in their own languages (Acts 2:9-11).
There are many stories of Pentecostal missionaries who discovered they were speaking to the human language and went to that country to preach the gospel for many years. So this is one of the types of languages that we may speak when we speak in tongues.
Remember the second part of 1 Corinthians 13:1. Paul also mentions the language of angels. We do not know these languages. We do not speak them or know their syntax, grammar, or vocabulary. But rest assured, every language contains these elements.
Of course, since we do not know angelic languages, we may not be able to decipher these elements of language. They may be completely different from what we imagine languages are made up of.
For this reason, when I hear a message in tongues that doesn’t sound intelligible to me, I give a lot of grace because I don’t know if it is an angelic language that may have completely different rules for language than human languages.
Perhaps someday we will be able to know these angelic languages. But for now, we must trust that a person who speaks in tongues is speaking one of these two types of language that are mentioned in Scripture. As far as other languages, I do not know. These are the ones that Scripture mentions.