Spontaneous Knowledge of Other Languages

I was wondering what the Catholic Church’s exact teaching is on the spontaneous knowledge of a foreign language. In the Bible, the apostles speak in other languages once they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so this would lead me to think that it is something that could be considered miraculous. However, in my religion class this past semester, we watched a video on exorcism and the priest in the video said that one of the signs that someone might possessed is that they suddenly are able to speak in a language foreign to them. I was wondering what the exact Church teaching is on such a phenomena in light of seemingly contradictory information.

P.S. I’m new to this, so I’m sorry if this is in the wrong area of the forum.

Both the Holy Spirit and angels (good or bad) can give special knowledge. There is no contradiction here.

+1 If it is not from purely human teaching, it has its origin in the spiritual realm. The Church therefore, discerns all such cases carefully.

There have been times when I’ve wanted it. Especially when I felt unprepared for one of my Russian tests :stuck_out_tongue:

We need to keep in mind that the church also says that speaking in unknown languages is also a symptom of possible demon possession.

It’s important to discern which is the case and not be taken in by charlatans and fakes who may display these “gifts” in order to promote themselves as spiritual or to propound some sort of false private revelation.

What you are referring to is called ‘xenoglossy’ or ‘xenoglossia’ - There are in however, no known provable cases of xenoglossy ……anywhere.

Despite this fact however, Pentecostal and Charismatic communities are rife with reported examples. Unfortunately, none are backed by any substantial proof; it amounts to essentially hearsay whereby virtually nothing is known of the speaker, his/her background, possible exposure to the purported languages, or the linguistic background of many the ‘hearers’.

As others pointed out, evidence of ‘demonic possession’ is sometimes accompanied by xenoglossy; however, I’m not aware of any cases that have been analyzed and examined from a Linguistic point of view to determine the same criteria as above.

I was raised in a Pentecostal denomination and still have contacts in the various worlds of Pentecostalism/Charismaticism, so I have heard boatloads of speaking in tongues. I am also a trained polyglot, and while I have not formally studied linguistics, I have had plenty of contact with various linguistic principles. In all the speaking in tongues that I have heard, I have never recognized an existing human language, nor have I ever heard anything that sounded like it could be a human language.

(This is only a relation of my own personal experience, and it proves absolutely nothing :stuck_out_tongue: )

@DaveBj -

Your experiences echo most formal linguistic studies. Glossolalia/tongues can be defined as non-cognitive non-language utterances. Clearly not xenoglossy.

I believe most examples of purported xenoglossy with respect to demonic possession are “Biblical languages” - Latin and Greek mainly, but I think maybe also Aramaic/Hebrew.

I can’t recall ever hearing a story about someone supposedly possessed and rattling off in say, Japanese or German.

Acts 2: 4 describes “tongues” used to praise and glorify God. Each person has their own particular sounds.

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues,* as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. usccb.org/bible/acts/2

Acts 2: 5 -12 describes the Miracle of Hearing when a person heard the Good News in her/his own language. There have been reports that missionaries have “spoken” in the native vernacular. I have not verified those reports; however, the Miracle of Hearing is possible.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?”

Having grown up and spent adult time in the environment that I mentioned, I have heard quite a few such stories. However, they have all been many levels removed from their supposed origin and were completely unverifiable.

At times I have wondered, based on the wording of Acts 2:8-12 (And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born . . . we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God . . ." emphasis mine), whether the reality of this event and of the anecdotes that I and others have heard might be that the glossalalist is/was speaking “as the Spirit gives utterance,” and the Holy Spirit allows the listener to hear what [s]he needs to hear at the moment.

And you, of course, are quite right, that this and xenoglossy are completely different phenomena.

Many people have offered the explanation of the Pentecost narrative as a “hearing miracle”, but my take on it is that there was no need for xenoglossy, glossolalia, or any hearing or language miracle - it was simply the apostles speaking in Greek and Aramaic rather than the culturally appropriate Hebrew in this situation.

what follows is a more detailed explanation - it’s a long post so has to be done in three parts, but sums it up rather nicely.


In describing the events of Pentecost with respect to languages/tongues, most people ascribe one of two possibilities: xenoglossia or glossolalia.

I think any way it’s analyzed, we can rule out glossolalia, particularly the modern Pentecostal phenomenon of ‘tongues’; these were clearly real languages the listeners understood; not ecstatic utterances. The description of the event is, at first glance, virtually an ancient ‘textbook example’ of what is known as xenoglossia or xenoglossy – the ability to speak in a REAL language the speaker has in no way, shape, or form ever been exposed to.

Some will argue a miracle of hearing – people HEARD them speaking these languages (but the apostles themselves were not actually speaking them). In postulating a miracle of hearing, what was actually spoken becomes more or less irrelevant.

With respect to what transpired however, a very viable third alternative must be given serious consideration which negates the necessity of a ‘language miracle’ – it simply involves taking a closer look at what languages were actually historically spoken by the Jews, and something called “ecclesiastical diglossia”:

We are told that there were Jews from “every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem. The phrase “every nation under heaven” is an idiomatic expression meaning simply “from all over”. It is analogous to expressions used today such as “all over the word”, or “from everywhere on the planet” – it’s not meant to be taken literally. In fact, the narrative goes on to state specifically where those visiting Jerusalem were from (Acts 2:9-11). It is a listing of geographic places (about 10) and groups of people (about 5). The important thing to note is that NOWHERE does it specifically mention what languages these people spoke; in fact, nowhere in the entire narrative is even one language mentioned by name….not one. This has led many people over the ages to assume that each place referenced in the narrative had its own specific language or languages or that the list is an actual list of languages; it is just naturally assumed that the Diaspora Jews spoke a dozen or so languages which the apostles were not at all familiar with.

If we look at the attendees for this religious holiday in a practical manner however, we can draw a simple conclusion – the masses of people referred to in Acts can be divided into two groups: the “devout Jews” that lived in Judea (Palestine/Israel) – Group 1, and the “devout Jews” from “every nation under heaven”, i.e. the Jews of the Diaspora – Group 2.

By far, the bulk of the people in Jerusalem for Pentecost would have in all likelihood consisted of those from Group 1 since they lived the closest to Jerusalem. Think about it - this is analogous to say having some sort of International Conference of Widget Makers in Boston, MA. The bulk of people attending would come right from Boston and the New England area, with lesser and lesser percentages of attendees coming from further and further away with the smallest percentage coming from abroad. In other words, at Pentecost in Jerusalem, the bulk of the people there would come right from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. What was the everyday language of Jews from this area at this time period? Simple; Aramaic, but also Greek to a lesser extent.

Turning to the Diaspora (those Jews living outside of Judea), we must make a differentiation between those of the eastern Diaspora and those of the western Diaspora. In addition to the obvious geographic differences, this was a difference in language as well. The people of the western Diaspora lived in areas around the Mediterranean basin; an area which had been very heavily Hellenized for centuries. Places like Pontus, Cappadocia, Pamphylia, etc. had been Greek speaking for centuries. The native language of these western Diaspora Jews was simply Greek. Different countries, yes, but linguistically, all one language. Those Jews of the eastern Diaspora came from places that had never been Hellenized and, as ethnic minorities living in a land either they themselves or their ancestors immigrated to, retained Aramaic as their predominant native language. This is analogous to an ethnic group living in Yourtown, USA – some people in this group will learn and speak English, but amongst themselves, their native language and customs are retained.

In a nutshell, the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost would have likely spoken only two languages; Greek and Aramaic. Greek was the language of Jews from the western Diaspora and Aramaic the language of those Jews from the eastern Diaspora and, of course, Judea itself. One must note that absolutely nowhere in the entire narrative does it suggest there was any type of a communication problem to begin with! In Acts 2:14, Peter spoke to the entire crowd in one language and apparently was understood by everyone; I would strongly argue the language he used was Greek; the “English” of its day, understood in varying degrees by everyone in that area of the world.


To paraphrase from an excellent article written on the subject by Robert Zerhusen: This creates a huge problem for any sort of language miracle – the disciples, being Hellenized Jews living in Judea would have spoken both languages. So what then were these “other tongues” the narrative refers to? Very simply, the “other languages” would have been nothing more than Greek and Aramaic. But why would the narrative call them “other languages” when they would have been familiar to the disciples(speakers)? Other than WHAT language? Why would the crowd react with such amazement and even ridicule and anger if/when they heard the disciples teaching/proclaiming in Aramaic and Greek (mind you, languages the disciples already knew)?

To gain a better understanding and to try and put it in better perspective one must look at the significance of the Hebrew language in Jewish culture.

What one must understand is that in many ancient cultures (in this case the Jewish culture) the language of prayer, worship, and in some cases religious teaching/proselytizing was very specific. Something we really don’t have today here in America so it’s hard to relate to. In many cultures (both in ancient times and even today), when you pray, you pray in one specific prescribed language…period. For 1st century Jews, this was Hebrew. To do so in another language was simply unheard of and unthinkable (though Aramaic was allowed in some cases for some prayers). As odd and even nonsensical as it sounds to us today, for a Jew at that time, to hear someone praising, proclaiming, or praying to THEIR God in say Galatian or Assyrian, or even Aramaic and Greek for that matter, would have been utterly shocking and sort of akin to violating a cultural taboo; it just wasn’t done. It should however be noted that, with the Hellenization of the Mediterranean basin, Greek was very slowly becoming an acceptable language for Judaism alongside Hebrew.

The linguistic phenomenon we need to consider here is called diglossia; the use of two different languages (or in some cases, variations of the same language) by a people under certain social conventions/situations. This exists today in some European countries. For example in German speaking Switzerland the language of government, newspapers, television, education, etc. is High German whilst the general populace speaks Swiss German, arguably a completely separate, but very closely related, language to German In Greece one sees “katharevusa” the “high language” of literature, education, etc., but people speak ‘demotic‘ Greek (the lower language) on a day to day basis.

There is typically a distinction in prestige between the high language (H) and the low language (L). H is seen as superior to L in most instances. H is used to express more important thoughts, it is seen as somehow more beautiful, etc. than L. H is seen as connecting the community to its past, some believe that H is more divinely sanctioned. To use L in certain situations (religious settings, for example) was seen as a major taboo and culturally unacceptable.

First century Judeans would have viewed Hebrew as the H language and Aramaic and/or Greek, depending on where you were from, as the L language(s).

This is something akin to pre Vatican II in the Catholic Church where the H language was Latin and the L language(s) were the local vernacular(s). When diglossia typically occurs only in a religious setting, it is often referred to as “ecclesiastical diglossia”. In some cases, even into fairly modern times, violating the rules of ecclesiastical diglossia can be met with dire consequences; William Tyndale was executed in the early 1500’s for violating ecclesiastical diglossia in England when he translated the Bible (H language – Latin) into English (L language – vernacular).

“Other tongues/languages” to Jews when it came to religion was very simple – languages other than Hebrew. The ‘other languages’ for the vast majority of the world’s Jews at that time were simply Greek and Aramaic.

The Jewish crowd in Jerusalem for Shavuot/Pentecost expected to be hearing what is called (in Hebrew) “leshon ha-kodesh” – the holy language, i.e. Hebrew, the H language. This was the expectation even though Hebrew would not be intelligible to most of them; it was the cultural expectation. They would never expect to hear ordinary people boldly prophesying in the L languages (Aramaic and Greek) in this situation, particularly on a religious holiday; it would simply not have been culturally acceptable and looked upon as a major violation of this ecclesiastical diglossia.

When the crowds heard the disciples boldly proclaiming in the “other languages” of Greek and Aramaic (the native languages of the Jews gathered there), they reacted in utter amazement and astonishment. Some were even angered at this very clear violation of ecclesiastical diglossia and even accused them of being drunk.

The phrase “are not all those speaking, Galileans?” usually is understood to mean that because the disciples speaking were Galileans, how could they possibly know all these languages from all these different places?


When put into the context of ecclesiastical diglossia however, the phrase takes on a totally new meaning. The phrase should be read with the understanding something to the effect of: clearly, if these people speaking are Galileans, they should know better than to dare to do such an unheard of thing as to speak Aramaic and Greek (the L languages – our native languages) instead of the proper sacred language of Hebrew (which this situation clearly calls for).

To conclude, if we take the historical situation into account, analyze the likely composition, geographic and linguistic make-up of the attendees, and view this in the light of the existing ecclesiastical diglossia, the conclusion is simple: there really was no language miracle and certainly no ecstatic utterances on Pentecost – there was no need of either; it was simply the disciples prophesying and teaching in the common languages of Aramaic and Greek (which they all were familiar with) instead of the more proper and expected Hebrew (which the rules of ecclesiastical diglossia demanded in this situation). The real miracle or ‘gift’ of the Holy Spirit here may have simply been the apostles finding the courage to go out and boldly preach in the everyday languages of those gathered for the feast; the disciples were, we are told, people supposedly literally in fear of their lives behind locked doors after the execution of their leader, Jesus, by the foreign occupiers (the Romans) of their homeland. The true gift of the Spirit may have been simply the courage for them to overcome this fear. The language used to speak to the masses simply Aramaic and Greek, being done for perhaps the first time in clear violation of centuries of ecclesiastic diglossia to illustrate that the message of the disciples (and subsequently Christianity) need not be solely limited to the expected H language of Hebrew.

There are, as one would expect, some arguments against the above; the most critical I have seen gives five points that must be substantiated to more or less prove the above. They are: 1) Did Judean diglossia exist? 2) Would the disciples be able to speak Greek/Aramaic? 3) Was the native language of those present Greek/Aramaic? 4) Would Judean diglossia explain the bewilderment, amazement and astonishment of those hearing the disciples? 5) What is the significance of the event?

The five points the author makes are legitimate, but three of them (1, 2, and 5) can virtually be dismissed.
Yes, we know from historical sources, and even as practiced today, that ecclesiastical diglossia existed in Judaism. Take a look at a Passover booklet (you see these around Passover in many supermarkets that have a special “Passover food section” (Maxwell House coffee used to put a lot of these out)). The booklet gives the traditional Passover text and songs in Hebrew (one or two may be in Aramaic) along with a phonetic rendering so that a speaker of English can recite the text in Hebrew – the text is also given in English, but the intro to the booklet clearly indicates that the Hebrew text should be used if at all possible.

Yes, the disciples would have spoken both languages – Aramaic was their native language, Greek was a common language in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.

The significance of course was that going forward, the teaching of Christianity did not have to be done in any one prescribed language – local vernacular could be used without fear of and cultural repercussions (see more below).

Of the two remaining, point 3 seems to be the weaker of the two and point 4 can be argued either way. In fact, the author concedes that points one and two are very provable and has no argument against them.

Here are my counter-arguments for the remaining points:

Point 3 – (The only two languages of the Diaspora as Greek and Aramaic) – Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything absolutely 100% conclusive either way. Evidence seems to suggest that Jews in the Diaspora tended to live in the larger cities (i.e. they were more ‘urban’) and more likely to keep their language than adopt the one of the country they were living in – that’s not to say a Jew from say Parthia would not know Middle Persian/Parthian, but most likely it would not be his/her native language.

For Jews living in the western Diaspora, there really was only one language: Greek. These lands had been Hellenized for generations and Greek, due to it being so widespread as a lingua franca, was seen as perfectly acceptable as opposed to keeping Aramaic as one’s mother tongue and learning Greek as a second (or third) language. In fact, because of the dominance of Greek among the western Diaspora, there was a need for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Septuagint, which became the standard text used in the synagogues of the western Diaspora, is evidence that Greek was the native language of these Judeans. One may even postulate that in the western Diaspora, Greek was slowly being seen more and more as an acceptable ‘H language’ alongside Hebrew.

OK - so apparently I’ll need more than just three posts…


It’s the eastern Diaspora that gets a bit tricky.

This point (Aramaic or local languages), I agree, could be argued well either way simply due to the lack of evidence. It is however reasonable to suggest that a Jewish ethnic and religious group in the eastern Diaspora would tend to keep their language and culture as well as learn the language and culture of the country they are living in. Zerhusen states “Although Greek was used in Palestine and had penetrated parts of the eastern Diaspora, the Aramaic language continued to dominate in the east. Jacob Neusner says of the use of Aramaic and Greek among the eastern Diaspora: “Most Jews…did not speak Greek but Aramaic (this is inferred from Josephus’ writings, and from later literature), and in later periods produced literature in Hebrew and Aramaic”. F.F. Bruce, discussing the language situation of the eastern Diaspora listed in Acts 2:9-11, wrote: "Parthia, Media, Elam (Elymias) and Mesopotamia lay east of the Euphrates, the Jews in those areas spoke Aramaic. These were the lands of the earliest dispersion, to which exiles from the ten northern tribes of Israel had been deported by the Assyrians in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. We may recall here (see 2 Kgs 18:19-28) that prior to the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests and exile of the Judeans, ordinary Judeans spoke Hebrew as their native tongue and were unfamiliar with Aramaic. This linguistic situation was completely reversed by the time the Judeans returned from their exile. When they returned to Palestine, Hebrew was no longer their native tongue, having been replaced by Aramaic. The most reasonable explanation for this linguistic shift is that the native language for the eastern Diaspora had become Aramaic.”

As a fairly modern comparison, I live in a city that had a huge textile producing mill in the late 1800’s early 1900’s. The mill actively recruited workers from literally all over Europe (east and west) and thus, we have a huge ethnic diversity here – many of these ethnic groups still preserve their language and culture to this day. Even today I see this happening – my city has seen in the last ten years or so a huge influx of Bosnians, Somalians and Hispanics. They all closely preserve their language and culture (and learn our culture, and English as a second language to theirs – well to be honest, some of them do learn English, some do not).

Though this may not be the same situation as Jews living in the Diaspora two thousand years ago, there’s no reason to assume people wouldn’t do the same thing with regards to preserving their identity and not wanting to blend into the masses. Getting back to the example of Jews of Parthia – I would argue that Aramaic would have been the language of home and within the Jewish community while Parthian would have been a second (or third) language to be used with the “locals” when needed, it was never a mother tongue.

Point 4 – (The author argues that Greek as well as Hebrew could be regarded as the “H language,” the more proper language to use) – Greek seems to be gaining quite a bit of ground during this time period as being an acceptable alternative to Hebrew as the ‘H language’ particularly amongst the western Diaspora (see Point 3 above). While the evidence is inconclusive, what little there is seems to point to this. While there certainly may have been those present who would think nothing of hearing the disciples speak in Greek, for some, it was clearly still not culturally acceptable. The narrative comments on the astonishment, bewilderment, amazement, and apparently for some, anger, of the crowd in hearing this being done evidences the use of Greek as still being considered by many as unacceptable.

Point 5 – (The significance of it all) I don’t see this as really being an argument, but….as previously stated, there is really nowhere in the entire narrative that suggests there was any type of a communication problem to begin with! Peter spoke to the crowd in one language (Acts 2:14) and apparently was understood by everyone (of course, we have no clue what language that was, but I would strongly suspect and argue Greek). So if no language miracle took place, what was the point? To paraphrase from Zerhusen - Luke’s purpose in presenting the list (with Cyprus and Syria missing) was perhaps not intended to represent linguistic diversity, but rather may suggest that the first apostolic ministry was to the Jewish Nation as a whole (Diaspora included).


The real miracle of the Holy Spirit here may simply have been to give the disciples the courage and spiritual strength to “spread the word” and to dispose of the cultural necessity to do so in one (or two) language(s) (i.e. observe strict adherence to ecclesiastical diglossia). They could now break that cultural barrier and use the local vernaculars without fear of any reprise.

As an aside, there some will make the distinction that the Bible uses both “tongue” and “dialect” – the passage was “They hear them speaking in their own dialect/vernacular (Gk.’dialektw’).”

I think this is a case of people are reading way too much into individual words and over-analyzing why one word is used over another. Yes, in modern usage there’s an obvious difference between language (glossa) vs. dialect/vernacular (dialektw), but the word ‘dialect’ is used even today by many people to refer to what are actually languages; “My friend from Zimbabwe speaks an African dialect.” Or even “She speaks in the local dialect of Toshkent.” What’s really meant here, dialect or language? I would argue it’s clearly language. Luke simply chooses to use the word dialektw instead of glossa. The Greek word ‘dialektos’ may be translated either as ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ (with the meaning of ‘language’ as in my examples above). There are other passages in the Bible where the word ‘dialektos’ clearly refers to language, not what we think of as a dialect (i.e. Yorkshire English as opposed to the English of Kent).

The bottom line here is that the “tongues” of Pentecost were most certainly never modern Pentecostal glossolalia, nor were they several various languages; they were simply two languages that everyone knew but were not allowed to use because of cultural taboos. The disciples broke through this cultural barrier and once could almost say, “paved the way” for the spread of a new religion called Christianity.

The Catholic Church makes a very clear distinction between the Gifts of the Holy Spirit which employ the Holy Spirit Gift of Tongues and the possibility of someone being possessed by Satan.

The following is from [FONT=Georgia][size=4]Interview with an Exorcist.[/size][/FONT]

Another sign would be being able to speak in a language they have no competency in. This would usually occur either in a deliverance prayer or a formal exorcism.

As someone who is somewhat familiar with St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 & 14 – I strongly suggest that we do not confuse “spontaneous knowledge of other languages” with gifts from the Holy Spirit.


Agreed. But he also calls us to be discerning. :slight_smile:

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