Did you know the Bible talks about four different ways the Holy Spirit can give believers the gift of speaking in tongues? It’s like the Holy Spirit has these four unique styles of giving this gift.

And here’s the interesting part: each of these ways of speaking in tongues has its own special job. They’re not random; they each play a unique role in making believers stronger, helping the Church grow, and moving forward the Kingdom of God. It’s like a special power that’s all about building up and making things better. Want to know more? Let’s explore this gift of speaking in tongues together!

1. Tongues as an Actual Foreign Language 

The first type of tongues we observe took place in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost. 

I (Brad) have seen this gift cross cultural barriers in the Church.

My Experience with the Gift of Speaking in Tongues

One time I witnessed this form of tongues as an actual foreign language. It was understood by a native speaker of this particular dialect, as led by the Spirit.

This occurred at a Dunamis Project located at First Presbyterian Church in San Mateo, California.  

In the meeting, a woman stood up and gave a public message in tongues.  It sounded like a Chinese dialect to me. 

But I could not understand it fully.   

We were waiting for the interpretation when a Chinese man ran to the front of the church. He threw himself down and started weeping and praying in this language.   

In Mandarin Chinese, he cried many times, “Yes, Jesus! Yes, Jesus, I’ll go!  I’ll go! I’ll obey! Please fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to be your witness in that difficult place.” 

At our debriefing meeting that followed the service, the Chinese brother told us that he had been struggling with a call to return to China as an evangelist.

He was not sure that this was really from Jesus and did not want to go there unless he was sure of God’s guidance.

When the message from the woman was given in his particular tongue, the gentleman told us it was in his grandmother’s dialect.

She had been saying, “Come over and help us. Please come over and help us, come help us know the way of salvation.”

The giver of the message, the woman who spoke out in tongues, made it clear that she could not speak Chinese, much less an uncommon dialect.

What was the real miracle at Pentecost?   

Those early believers were supernaturally enabled to speak in languages that they had never learned.  

They spoke a literal foreign language different from their native tongue, showing the cross-cultural communication purpose or use of this gift of tongues.

It enabled them to fulfill the “to all the nations” command in the Great Commission. 

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.  

Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 

Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Acts 2:4-11 (NIV)
Four Types of Tongues found in the Bible

John Calvin’s commentary invites us to see that these were actual foreign languages recorded in Scripture.

The people had been supernaturally given words without the benefit of study so that they could be witnesses to the gospel.   

“There was a difference between the knowledge of tongues, and the interpretation of them, for those who were endowed with the former were, in many cases, not acquainted with the language of the nation with which they had to deal.

The interpreters rendered foreign tongues into the native language. These endowments they did not at that time acquire by labor or study, but were put in possession of them by a wonderful revelation of the Spirit.”

Calvin’s Commentaries – 1 Corinthians   

Was the miracle at Pentecost one of speaking or of hearing?

I believe the reality of this gift from God will allow us to speak languages that people have not yet learned as a means of proclaiming the gospel.  

There is, however, a question as to whether tongues (in any manner of use) are found to be an existing foreign language.   

Was the gift one of speaking, of hearing, or both?  

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is that each of us hears them in his own native language?  

Acts 2:6-8 (NIV) 
Four Types of Tongues found in the Bible

How was the gift of speaking in tongues expressed at Pentecost?

On the day of Pentecost, we find three possibilities:

  1. Gift of tongues was expressed as a known language. 
  2. Gift of interpretation was being given to hearers so that they heard whatever was said in their language. 
  3. A mixture of both. 

Another possibility is that the gift of interpretation was also being given on that day of Pentecost.  

The fact that some mocked the disciples and thought they were drunk (Acts 2:12-13), suggests that the gift of interpretation was not given to all present. 

For these people, it would have been just unintelligible babble.   

The evidence seems to suggest that the disciples were all able to speak in tongues, but the Holy Spirit was giving particular individuals the gift of interpretation. So that “each one in the crowd stood in amazement as they heard the disciples speaking in his own native language.” 

In the other two instances where tongues have been manifested in Acts, there is no mention of a literal foreign language or multiple languages being spoken by the disciples (Acts 10:44-48, 19:1-6).

This leads me to believe there are more types of tongues yet to be explored in Scripture.

Also, Paul seems to suggest that while some expressions of tongues may be actual foreign languages (Acts 14:10) the stronger evidence is that he considered them to be, “praying in the spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2, 15), where the Holy Spirit is praying through our human spirit to God.  

Read more: Where is speaking in tongues found in the Bible?


2. Tongues as a Prayer Language 

Praying in tongues carries a different function of this gift.

Expressions come from the Holy Spirit as one way that He may pray through us.  

This notion is suggested in Romans 8:26, 

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Romans 8:26 (NIV) 

The following verses suggest that the gift of tongues can be found as a prayer language inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

1 Corinthians 13:1 (NIV) 

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 14:2 (NIV) 

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So, what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding.

1 Corinthians 14:14-15 (NIV) 
Four Types of Tongues found in the Bible

Tongues as expressed in a language grounded in prayer, seem to have very positive effects of building up oneself in one’s relationship with God.  

Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

1 Corinthians 14:4 (NIV) 

The situation in Corinth reveals that people were calling attention to themselves to demonstrate their spirituality with the gift of tongues.  This was not building the church or encouraging the people.

Paul writes the phrase, as one who “speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” This is likely based on Paul’s personal experience in prayer since he writes that he regularly spoke and prayed in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18).   


3. Speaking in Tongues as a Form of Praise 

Just as Paul spoke of practicing the gift of tongues as a prayer language, he also wrote about singing in tongues and praising God in the Spirit.    

This form of gift is called praise and worship, also known as singing in the Spirit.   

So, what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 

Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?

1 Corinthians 14:15-16 (NIV)

Many of us have found through experience that there is great power in this act of singing in the spirit.  

Often, after a time of corporate worship in the Spirit, a holy silence will fall on the group that is filled with the manifest presence of Jesus Christ.   

It seems that the abandonment of singing in tongues welcomes Jesus to come and work in our midst. As Reverend Woods defines this experience as,

Singing in the Spirit is when the Holy Spirit leads people into giving praise to him through melodies and words that are inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is as if there is an invisible conductor who leads the worship.  

Rev. Rod Woods, Pastor of City Temple, London, England 

4. Speaking in Tongues with Interpretation 

The fourth type of tongues is found when a public message occurs in a public gathering of the church, given in the gift of tongues. 

We find this context in which there must be interpretation present in the public meeting. Where various manifestations of the Holy Spirit become woven together to form a glorious time of corporate worship and ministry.   

This is dynamic and Spirit-led worship, in a service which many individuals are taking part in the whole gathering. You can see this in the disciples’ instructions found in Corinthians:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV) 

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

1 Corinthians 14:27-28 (NIV)

If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.

1 Corinthians 14:11-13 (NIV)

When an individual person gives a message in the gift of tongues at a public gathering of the Church, Paul goes on to require that these tongues be interpreted.

This is not to quench or belittle the gift of tongues; rather, it is to make sure that people are being encouraged and blessed by what God is doing. 

When the gift of tongues is interpreted corporately, it functions very much like prophecy—also seen as God speaking words to the Church for the building up of the body of Christ. 

To another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Notice that this is not a “translation” of the particular tongue, but rather the gift of “interpretation.”

The Greek word, hermeneia—according to Thayer’s definition, “is an interpretation of what has been spoken more or less obscurely by others.”   

Often, the meaning of the gift of tongues enters one’s heart and mind, allowing someone else to understand what is being said. In this way, the experience of receiving the gift of interpretation is almost identical in importance, to receiving a word of knowledge or prophecy.  


When in prayer the interpretation comes to me, it comes just like a prophecy or word of knowledge. It is like the meaning penetrates my heart.

Sometimes, when I am praying in tongues alone or quietly in a ministry situation, the meaning suddenly comes to me. I believe God gives me the gift of interpretation so I can, with my mind, participate with the Holy Spirit, who is praying through me to transmit the message to others. 

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