Xenoglossy (from Greek ξενογλωσσία - xenoglossia, from ξένος - xenos, "foreign" + γλώσσα - glossa, "tongue, language") is the putative paranormal phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language that he or she could not have acquired by natural means. For example, a person who speaks German fluently and like a native, but has never studied German, been to a German-speaking country, or associated with German-speakers, would be said to exhibit xenoglossy. The existence of xenoglossy is not generally accepted by linguists and psychologists (Samarin 1976, Thomason 1984, 1987, 1996). However, psychiatrist Professor Ian Stevenson has documented several cases which he considers authentic (Stevenson, 2001).

Xenoglossy in religion

The New Testament claims that xenoglossy took place at Pentecost. The Book of Acts (2:1-13) describes Galileans speaking in non-native languages drawn from all over the Roman Empire, so that visitors to Jerusalem could understand them declaring "the mighty works of God". The visitors included Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Cyrenian Libya, and Rome. The author of the Book of Acts calls this phenomenon "speaking in tongues", and other instances of it are mentioned in the Book of Acts (10:46; 19:6) and 1 Corinthians (12-14). The description of what happened at Pentecost is different from what is observed in modern glossolalia (what Pentecostal and charismatic Christians call 'speaking in tongues'), although Christians who practise glossolalia today link what they do to what happened at Pentecost.

Claimed cases of xenoglossy have been used as evidence of the reality of reincarnation, on the assumption that retention of knowledge of the language from a previous life is the only way to account for it.

Cases subjected to scientific investigation

Scientific research into xenoglossy is quite rare and Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, had just a handful of suggestive cases. These included two hypnotic regression cases where the subject could converse with people speaking the foreign language, instead of merely being able to recite foreign words. Sarah Thomason, a linguist at the University of Michigan, reanalysed these cases.

  • Swarnlatta Mishra: A girl in India who lived entirely among Hindi-speaking people but was able to sing songs in Bengali, as identified by Professor P. Pal of Itachuna College in West Bengal, who studied the case after Professor Stevenson and transcribed some of the songs.
  • Sharada: Uttara Huddar was a woman in India who normally spoke Marathi. While in hospital undergoing psychiatric treatment, she began manifesting a personality called Sharada, who spoke in Bengali. Stevenson had recordings analysed by Bengali speakers, who disagreed among themselves about the subject's fluency. It cannot be ruled out that the subject may have learned Bengali earlier in life: both she and her father had a long-standing interest in Bengal, her home city had 1% native Bengali speakers, she had read Bengali novels in translation, and she herself had taken lessons in reading Bengali.
  • Jensen, an American woman who presented the character of a Swedish farmer while under hypnosis conducted by her physician husband. Stevenson reported that the subject was able to converse in Swedish. However Thomason's reanalysis showed that Jensen could not converse in Swedish; in the interview Stevenson studied in depth the subject used only 31 words (without known cognates) unprompted, gave no complex sentences, mostly gave one or two word answers, and the subject's poor pronunciation was covered by correct spelling in the transcripts. Jensen's lack of understanding of Swedish was such that he answers ‘my wife’ to a question about what he would pay for some item at the market. Linguist William Samarin drew the same conclusion as Thomason.
  • Gretchen, an American woman who presented the life of a teenaged girl in Germany while hypnotized by her Methodist minister husband. Stevenson reported that he was able to converse with the subject in German. Again Thomason's reanalysis showed that Gretchen could not converse in German. Her speech was largely the repetition of German questions with different intonation, or utterances of one or two words. Her "German vocabulary is minute, and her pronunciation is spotty". When asked what she had for breakfast, she answers ‘Bettzimmer’, which is a non-existent word made up of the two words for 'bed' and 'room'. Moreover she had some previous exposure to German in TV programmes and a German book.

Unsubstantiated cases

Proper scientific investigation of reports of xenoglossy is rare. More typical are press reports like that of Czech speedway rider Matěj Kus from Pilsen, who, in September of 2007 at the age of 18 reportedly awoke after a crash and was able to converse in perfect English. His ability did not last long and he was unable to remember anything from this episode. The press reports of his fluency in English are based entirely on the reports of his Czech team-mates. There is no record of his allegedly fluent speech or report by a native English speaker.

See also



  • Samarin, William J. Review of Ian Stevenson Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. Language 52.1.270-274. (1976)
  • Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. (1966). (Second revised and enlarged edition 1974), University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813908728
  • Stevenson, Ian. Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. Charlotte: University Press of Virginia. (1974).
  • Stevenson, Ian. Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy. (1984). University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813909945
  • Stevenson, Ian. Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Quest of Reincarnation. (2001). McFarland & Company, ISBN 0-7864-0913-4
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Do you remember your previous life's language in your present incarnation?" American Speech, 59:340–50, 1984.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Past tongues remembered?" The Skeptical Inquirer, 11:367–75, Summer 1987.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Xenoglossy" in Gordon Stein (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. (1996) PDF

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