Of all the charismatic gifts that Paul mentions, there is no gift that has probably stoked more controversy than the gift of tongues. At the heart of the controversy of tongues, however, is what Paul says about tongues in 1 Corinthians. If the only thing we had heard about tongues was in Acts 2.4, people would have simply thought tongues a Spiritual gift that enabled people to speak in the languages of other people in service of communication of the Gospel. However, there are two things that Paul mentions about tongues in 1 Corinthians that make such an understanding of tongues to be unsatisfactory.
Firstly, Paul refers to the tongues of angels in 1 Corinthians 13.1. One could try to understand to understand this as a hypothetical, given the nature of Paul’s rhetoric here about love. Nevertheless, that he can understand tongues as extending beyond human communication, even in the hypothetical, suggests tongues were not understood to be simply given in the service of evangelism, even as that is one possible usage of tongues. Consequently, tongues were not always meant to be understood by other persons. This leads to the second place in 14.2, where Paul describes tongues as speaking of mysteries by the Spirit that others do not comprehend. This cements the understanding of tongues as a form of spoken communication that is not simply in service of communicating the Gospel.
However, what undergirds Paul’s discussion on tongues is this: the default ideas that spoken communication is by default understandable by others. Speaking is understood to be a meaningful way that two or more persons can communicate with others. What Paul says about tongues is only meaningful based upon this default assumption, such that communication is broken when it comes to tongues in 1 Corinthians, unless someone has the ability to interpret tongues. Yet, this is precisely the opposite of what we see in Acts 2. This leads to the conclusion that there are two “classes” of tongues: 1) communicative tongues in Acts 2 that correspond to human languages and 2) mysterious tongues that correspond to the language of angels that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians.
However, let’s be clear here: the communicative assumption is an interpersonal reality. It is, roughly speaking, what Ludwig Wittgenstein refers to as a public language. However, whereas Wittgenstein denies the possibility of private meaning and private language, Paul’s understanding of tongues considers the possibility that there are forms of speaking that are meaningful to the speaker, even as they are not meaningful to others who here. The concern that Paul has is that how tongues effect other people and their apparent meaninglessness. He does not rule out the private meaningfulness of the one speaking in tongues. In fact, his understanding of tongues assumes it, because even though others can not understand the tongues, the one who speaks in tongues as a sense of meaning attached to it. This phenomenon is nothing different than when a person speaks to themselves and they comprehend what they are saying to themselves, with the only real different is that we usually speak to ourselves in a publicly understandable language, whereas tongues in 1 Corinthians were understood in a private sense.
This then provides the distinction between tongues and a similar phenomenon that we can also see in many charismatic circles: babbling. The ability to (pseudo-)randomly string syllables together that mimics language is a very basic ability that all humans have, stemming from the way we learned as little children how to use our vocal chords and create patterns. Babbling may sound like a language if one structures it a bit more complexly than the ways that baby babble, but this is simply a higher degree of complexity in sound production. Such a process of speech production can be generated simply by letting loose of the usual inhibitions and processes we have in speech production, creating what might seem like an impressive-sounding sequence of syllables. However, babbling is neither meaningful publicly or privately. There is no mystery that the speaker of tongues understands in their speech.
However, there is something important to recognize from this: As one who is hearing audible sounds that I can not meaningful interpret, I can not distinguish whether this is a tongue or babbling in and of itself. I do not have direct access to the private meaning that such speech may convey. Consequently, I can not judge whether a specific person or a specific instance is a genuine tongue or babbling. I have to let that stand between God and the person. However, Paul’s advice about tongues is essentially reflective of this: unless someone can interpret them, keeps tongues to yourself in worship. Unless they are used to communicate with others in a meaningful, their value is ultimately for the person speaking and thus, they do not build up the Church, which is what corporate worship is to be about.
So, there is a meaningful line between tongues as described in 1 Corinthians and babbling, but it is not a line that I can readily distinguish in other persons. As a gift of the Spirit, mystery tongues can be of great personal and spiritual benefit, but this is based upon them being meaningful to the speaker. Simply being able to string along syllables is not even privately meaningful, although a person may feel empowered by God due to such an ability, but there is a difference between “skills” that emerge from the alterations of our cognitive and physiological processes and the charismatic gifts that comes about from the Spirit who makes tongues meaningful for the speaker. So, for those who thing they speak in tongues, it is important to be discerning: is this meaningful and thus a reflection of the Spirit’s works in my life or is this simply a ‘natural’ process of speaking that I have given “permission” to take over.