The Bible’s answer

“Speaking in tongues” refers to a miraculous ability some early Christians had that enabled them to speak a language without first having learned it. (Acts 10:46, New International Version) The speaker was easily understood by anyone who knew that language. (Acts 2:​4-8) Speaking in tongues was one of the gifts of the holy spirit that God gave to some first-century Christians.​—Hebrews 2:4; 1 Corinthians 12:​4, 30.

 Where and when did speaking in tongues start?

This miracle first occurred in Jerusalem on the morning of the Jewish Festival of Pentecost in 33 C.E. About 120 of Jesus’ disciples were meeting together when “they all became filled with holy spirit and started to speak in different languages.” (Acts 1:​15; 2:​1-4) A large crowd of people “from every nation under heaven” gathered, and “each one heard them speaking in his own language.”​—Acts 2:​5, 6.

 What was the purpose of speaking in tongues?

  1. To show that God was backing Christians. In the past, God provided miraculous signs to prove that he was backing faithful people such as Moses. (Exodus 4:​1-9, 29-​31; Numbers 17:10) Speaking in tongues served a similar purpose, showing that God was backing the newly formed Christian congregation. The apostle Paul wrote: “Tongues are not a sign for the believers but for the unbelievers.”​—1 Corinthians 14:22.

  2. To enable Christians to give a thorough witness. Those who heard Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost said: “We hear them speaking in our languages about the magnificent things of God.” (Acts 2:​11) Thus, another key purpose of this miracle was to enable Christians “to give a thorough witness” and to “make disciples of people of all the nations,” as they had been commanded by Jesus. (Acts 10:42; Matthew 28:19) About 3,000 who observed the miracle and listened to the witness that was given became disciples that very day.​—Acts 2:​41.

 Was speaking in tongues to continue permanently?

No. The gifts of the holy spirit, including that of speaking in tongues, were a temporary provision. The Bible foretold: “If there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away with; if there are tongues, they will cease.”​—1 Corinthians 13:8.

 When did speaking in tongues cease?

The gifts of the holy spirit were generally passed on to other Christians in the presence of the apostles, usually by the apostles placing their hands on fellow believers. (Acts 8:​18; 10:44-​46) It appears that those who received the gifts of the spirit from the apostles did not transfer them to others. (Acts 8:​5-7, 14-​17) To illustrate, a government official may issue a driver’s license to someone, but that person is not given the legal authority to issue a license to anyone else. Apparently, speaking in tongues ended with the death of the apostles and those who had personally received the gift from them.

 What about speaking in tongues today?

The miraculous gift of speaking in tongues evidently ended about the end of the first century C.E. No one today can rightly claim to speak in tongues by God’s power. *

 How can true Christians be identified?

Jesus said that self-sacrificing love would identify his disciples. (John 13:34, 35) Likewise, the apostle Paul taught that love would be a permanent identifier of genuine Christians. (1 Corinthians 13:​1, 8) He indicated that God’s spirit would produce in Christians the qualities referred to collectively as “the fruitage of the spirit,” the first quality of which is love.​—Galatians 5:​22, 23.