When Words Fail: Glossolalia among Multilingual Christians in the Netherlands

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk (lezing)


The religious phenomenon of speaking in tongues is a common practice among many Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians. Speaking in tongues, also called glossolalia, can be described as a spiritual state in which a believer utters a seemingly random string of sounds in ecstatic worship for God. To an outsider, these sounds might be incomprehensible and nonsensical, and a linguist examining the phenomenon would find little to no similarities to natural languages. However, research also shows that the practice holds profound meanings for users, not only on emotional, spiritual, and theological levels but also socially, in relationship with other Christians. In many cases, Christians who use glossolalia do define it as a language, albeit a divine one, used to communicate with God and for which translation can also be provided by other Christians. By means of ethnographic fieldwork in transnational church communities in the Netherlands, I explore how Charismatic Christians reflect on the use of glossolalia in their faith as a linguistic tool to communicate with God and others and use it as an identity practice. I examine the implicit and explicit language policies that need to be followed in order to use glossolalia in a church community and how it is acquired, and sometimes abandoned, throughout the conversion experience of a Christian. In particular, I focus on the experiences of multilingual Christians and their reflections on glossolalia through their metalinguistic awareness. Their stories and beliefs reveal how glossolalia is, to the user, much more than just a meaningless string of sounds but that Christians experience sociolinguistic variation in its production and acquisition, and exhibit a complex variety of language ideologies and attitudes.
Period19 Apr 2024
Event titleSociolinguistics Circle
Event typeConference
Conference number10
LocationGroningen, NetherlandsShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational