The Greek word for tongues is glossa (Strong's Concordance #G1100), which is found fifty times in the New Testament. It can sometimes refer to the literal tongue found in the human mouth (Mark 7:33, Luke 16:24, etc.). In the vast majority of cases, however, the definition of tongues is a symbolic reference to speaking in a known language (Mark 16:17, Luke 1:64, etc.).
Surprisingly, there are only two primary sections of the New Testament that deal directly with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This article will briefly discuss these two sections and show that this gift does not entail speaking in unknown or "heavenly" languages but rather in languages clearly understood by other humans.
In 30 A.D., the year Jesus died, a small group of 120 disciples gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. Around 9 am the Holy Spirit was given to each person in the group, with attention drawn to this fact by the sound of a mighty wind and tongues of fire appearing on everyone in attendance (Acts 2:2 - 3). The Bible then states, "and they began to speak with other languages (glossa), as the Spirit gave them the words to proclaim" (Acts 2:4, HBFV).
Why did God give these first Christians the ability of speaking in tongues (note that ALL 120 in attendance were given the gift)? Was it given to impress their friends? Was such a gift meant to show how special and "spiritual" they were compared to others? This gift was given for the purpose of preaching the gospel to the throngs of people in Jerusalem who came from vastly different parts of the world (Acts 2:5)!
When those in Jerusalem heard the rushing wind they quickly ran to where the disciples were located. When they arrived, "each one heard them speaking in HIS OWN LANGUAGE" (Acts 2:6). Those visiting Jerusalem did not hear the disciples speak gibberish or sounds that no one understood. What they heard were words spoken in their own native tongues (languages) that they clearly could understand!
How many languages were needed to be spoken on Pentecost? Those in Jerusalem that day came from as far as Parthia and Media to the east, Mesopotamia to the north east, the northern Roman provinces of Pontus and Cappadocia, Egypt in the south and still other areas (Acts 2:9 - 11).
What is often overlooked, however, is on that special Pentecost God manifested miracles not only in speaking but also in hearing! After the crowd gathered near the disciples, and heard praises to God offered in their own languages, the Apostle Peter rose up to speak (Acts 2:14). He then addressed the vast and diverse crowd with the language he grew up with in Galilee (verse 7).
Since what Peter preached was not in the native tongues of most who heard him, God made it possible for each person to HEAR his words as if he were speaking their native language! Even more amazing, the crowd's multi-language response to the message (verse 37) was understood by Peter, and Peter's reply (verses 38 - 40) was again miraculously understood by the diverse speaking group.
The Corinthian problem
The church in Corinth was riddled with problems. Paul tackles several of these in both his first and second letters to the church. For whatever reason, the church was especially amazed and fixated on the gift of speaking in tongues. Paul tackled their problem in this area by reminding them that the gift of tongues, which he refers to as a gift of KNOWN languages, was only one of many abilities given by God.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the benefit of all. For to one, a word of wisdom is given by the Spirit; and to another, a word of knowledge . . . and to a different one, various languages; and to another, the interpretation of languages (1Corinthians 12:7 - 8, 10, HBFV)
It is interesting to note that, in spite of the heavy emphasis some modern Christians place on trying to manifest the gift of tongues, that Paul places this speaking gift LAST in relative importance. To reiterate his point, a few verses later he lists some of the responsibilities and works of service God has caused to appear in his church.
And God Himself has placed certain ones in the church: first, apostles . . . (then last) various languages (glossa, verse 28).
Paul again, in 1Corinthians 12;28, lists the gift of tongues (language) speaking as the least of all the responsibilities God gives.
The God given gift of speaking in other tongues or languages was meant to last only for a very short period of time (1Corinthians 13:8) in the Christian church. The greatest gift of all, which will always be the best in God's eyes, is the ability to love others (1Corinthians 13).