Speaking in tongues
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Speaking in tongues, technically known as glossolalia, is a practice in which people go into an ecstatic state and babble incoherently. It is traditionally seen as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. In Christianity it is most popular among the Pentecostals and similar charismatic sects. Outside of Christianity speaking in tongues is more commonly experienced by babies below the age of two, severely intoxicated individuals, and arguably in jazz scat singing.
Speaking in tongues, among modern Christians, is believed to be the word of God being expressed in some kind of divine language.
 Biblical support
Speaking in tongues is first mentioned in Acts 2:1-18, when the apostles, gathered during the day of Pentecost, were filled with the Holy Spirit and subsequently gained the ability to be understood in all languages. Onlookers expressed confusion when trying to understand why each of them heard the words of the apostles in their own native language. In concept it's similar to the Universal Translator plot device used in Star Trek to facilitate communication between humans and the various alien races featured in Star Trek lore.
Paul later commented on the practice of speaking in tongues, when in 1 Corinthians 14:1-39 Paul offered advice as to how to do it. He endorsed the practice, to a certain extent, but cautioned against babbling in such a way that no one understands what's being said. He advised that only one person at a time should speak in tongues, and that it should only be done when there is someone on hand with the ability to translate what is being said. Paul, being a fine example of Christian humility, claimed to speak in more tongues than anyone else. Paul's reasoning appears primarily based on the problem that people in church were actively competing against each other—and of course it's a bit difficult to conduct a solemn religious meeting when stuck in a room full of people yelling random gibberish. As anyone who was experienced modern-day Pentecostals will attest, it also looks pretty silly.
Although Acts describes a form of speaking in tongues that is magically understood by all, 1 Corinthians and Galatians alters the nature of this alleged religious experience. In these later books there are those with the gift of tongues—who can only be understood by those with the gift of interpretation. The need for this "retcon" seems evidenced by the story in Acts in which people who witnessed the apostles speaking in tongues suggested that they were just drunk. This comment was dismissed by pointing out that it was only nine in the morning—implying that surely no one would be drunk at such an early hour. The writer of Acts had obviously never been invited to the right parties.
 What does it sound like?
The "language" employed while speaking in tongues follows no standard structure, and the lexicon too is pretty random. There may be some approximate consistency among a single congregation, which can be explained by people mimicking each other, but only a superficial similarity is present among the individual speakers.
Practitioners tend to gravitate towards "biblical sounding" tongues - likely based on the perception that God's divine language would be similar to Hebrew, Latin, or other languages associated with the Christianity of antiquity.
 Why do they do it?
If the "gift of tongues" is seen as a natural effect of being visited by the Holy Spirit then there is a serious amount of peer pressure placed upon people to "play along". In a group of like-minded worshippers, few want to be the guy who got left behind. It may also be learned behavior, and this hypothesis is supported by the observation that people expressing this phenomenon tend to do so in a style similar to those around them.
If one concedes that most occurrences of speaking in tongues are genuine and involuntary actions, this is just one of many odd things that religious believers do. We should probably be grateful that, while babbling gibberish, they're too busy to burn witches or fly jet planes into buildings.
 Attempts to decode the word of God
Naturally, people are very interested in what God is actually trying to say through his Pentecostal followers. There have been any number of attempts to discover the lexicon and grammar of his language using the vast power of modern computing. These attempts include:
Seriously though, there is no evidence that the sounds made by people experiencing this phenomenon are in any way a real language.
 See also
- Scat singing at Wikipedia
- Video of a congregation speaking in tongues Paul would not be impressed.
- A preacher leads children in speaking in tongues (This clip originates from the documentary Jesus Camp)
- ↑ The Universal Translator described at Memory Alpha A Star Trek themed wiki explains the Deus ex machina in geeky detail.
- ↑ This is of course flawed reasoning, since everyone knows that God's lingua franca is Arabic.
- ↑ Pentecostal Glossolalia: Toward a Functional Interpretation