The first time that the word language shows up in Scripture is Genesis 10, where we are told that the sons and grandsons of Noah “were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (v. 5). Then in Genesis 11 we encounter this verse, “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (v. 1). This is a striking statement, as it seems that we were just told a few verses earlier that the descendants of Noah were divided up according to their different languages. How can it be that now everyone speaks the same language?
In Hebrew there are two words for language. One word is lashon, which literally means ‘tongue.’ The other word is saphah, which literally means ‘lip.’ If you think about these two parts of the body and their respective roles in speaking you get a picture of the difference in the meaning of these two words. The tongue (lashon) initiates the word inside of the mouth. The lips (saphah) give the final form to the words as they leave the mouth. Similarly, lashon refers to the internal nature of language, the inner intent of the speaker. While saphah refers to the external nature of language, the shape and sound of a language as it is spoken.
When Genesis gives us the account of Noah’s descendants being separated by family and language the word lashon (tongue) is used. When the account of Babel is given a few verses later the word saphah (lip) is used. At Babel the people were scattered when God confused their external speech, creating different languages in the sense that we typically use the word today. With Noah’s sons and grandsons the families were knitted together by a shared language, an inner intent and understanding that was shared by the entire family.
In English we sometimes use this same distinction. I have a friend who once led a church group on a rafting trip. My friend was determined to share his faith with his raft guide, but he knew he would have to build enough relationship first for there to be any receptivity. He spent a few hours trying to build that bridge of relationship from every angle possible, but was never able to break through the wall that the raft guide had put up. As my friend told me about his frustration during this experience he finally blurted out, “It’s like we were speaking two different languages.” Obviously they were speaking the same language (saphah or lips), just not the same language (lashon or tongue).
So, this lip language is an external barrier. It can be overcome by years of study, or a supernatural act of God. The tongue language is an internal barrier. It can be overcome by years of relationship, or a supernatural act of God. In Scripture we see God using both forms of language in the lives of people, and He still does both today.
I have another friend who moved to Bulgaria after college simply because he felt called by God to go and be a missionary there. He had no language training and a limited amount of contacts. Not very long into his stay he found himself frustrated because he could not communicate with many of the people with whom he was working. One day he needed to understand a conversation with two Bulgarian pastors, and so he cried out to God, “I need to understand if I’m going to do your work.” At that moment God gave him the Bulgarian language, which he still speaks fluently today.
One time in college I was in a small church service when during a time of prayer the speaker suddenly started speaking in something that sounded to me to be Chinese. Startled and unsure of what was happening I looked up. I noticed an Asian woman jumping up and down near the front of the sanctuary, apparently praising God. I learned after the service that the woman spoke almost no English and the speaker had never studied Chinese. Yet, the word he gave was a salvation message in perfect Mandarin Chinese.
My wife’s German great grandmother had a similar experience. She visited a church that was holding a revival service in order to hear a visiting American evangelist. The speaker had no training in German. Yet he suddenly gave a message in perfect German, which according to my wife’s great grandmother was an account of the Gospel. She accepted Jesus that day, and is with Him now in eternity.
Some people will try to tell you that God does not do these kinds of things anymore. That once the Holy Spirit birthed the church in the first century that type of power and demonstration was no longer necessary, and so the Holy Spirit ceased operating in that way. With all due respect to my cessationist brothers and sisters, anyone who says that is wrong. I have seen it with my own eyes, and the fruit that comes with it. So yes, God does supernatural miracles with our language, or with our lips (saphah).
But God also gifts us with our tongues (lashon). He has given each of us various tongues. Perhaps you speak raft guide or mechanic or business or hipster or homeschooling or education or medicine–the list could go on forever. As Paul once noted, “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me” (1 Cor 14:10-11).
The raft guide and my friend practically saw each other as barbarians. They simply did not understand each other. They came from two different families, spoke two different languages. You cannot know every language out there, but there are certain languages that you speak fluently. I might not speak your language. That is part of how God has gifted you. I do not want to discourage you from seeking the supernatural gift of glossolalia. However, all of us should take note of the gifts of language that God has already put in each of our lives. If you speak punk or hunter or skater or business or scrapbooking God wants you to use your gift of tongues to speak the message of Jesus Christ in that language.