Imagine one day you’re suddenly able to speak a foreign language. Although it may sound unusual, this rare phenomenon is known as xenoglossy or xenolalia and is sometimes observed in mediumship and reincarnation cases. It refers to the ability of an individual to speak or write a language that they presumably did not know and could not have acquired by ordinary means.
Could xenoglossy be evidence of survival of consciousness? Or are there alternative explanations for the occurrence not involving the paranormal?
Xenoglossy has been documented for millennia
The phenomenon of xenoglossy has been reported since ancient times. For example, in 400 BC, Plato mentions priestesses on the Island of Delos who spoke “in tongues.” There are also descriptions in the Bible (Corinthians 14:1-40 and Acts 2:4).
Another example is Indriði Indriðason (1883–1912), who apparently spoke multiple languages he did not know. Similarly, Alec Harris spoke at length to witness Sir Alexander Cannon in Hindustani and Tibetan, two languages that Harris would have had no way of knowing, but Sir Alexander did know.
This phenomenon has been reported both with spontaneous (involuntary) past life memories and memories induced in age regression under hypnosis or past life regression.
Other xenoglossy cases have also been documented by University of Virginia scientist Ian Stevenson. While anecdotal and subject to the known biases of experiential reports, these cases have been meticulously well-documented.
Similar cases of “acquired” and “spontaneous savants” refer to individuals who, either through a traumatic event or with no apparent cause at all, suddenly gain exceptional musical or mathematical skills. Learn more in this IONS peer-reviewed publication.
Some suggest that xenoglossy is merely an expression of subconscious language learning. Those who are naturally gifted in learning new languages may pick up on words and phrases without noticing. The person may have heard words spoken in a foreign language in childhood and subsequently forgotten about it.
Many of us subconsciously pick up things from our environments that become committed to memory, even though we are unaware it is happening. This can be true for language skills, too. However, it is much rarer to acquire expertise in a foreign language in this way.
While there may not exist a single standardized metric for measuring mastery of a language, relative ability and mastery can be measured. One possible way to address this issue is to assess the person’s foreign language ability and weigh it against the consideration that it could have been acquired subconsciously and without effort.
Language acquisition: a mystery
Language is a complex phenomenon that can be considered synesthesia: we assign symbolic meaning to inherently meaningless sounds. Various cognitive mechanisms and perhaps genetic components are involved in the process. Using language is like building a LEGO castle – you can use different building blocks in seemingly endless combinations to achieve a similar result.
We all learn in different ways. Some people may need lots of practice and conscious repetition to learn a new language, while others can subconsciously absorb words and phrases. It’s hard to draw a line between natural skills and extraordinary or supernatural abilities. Some, if not all, adults can learn a language, at least to a certain extent, by mere exposure to it, which we see in children when learning their native tongue.
Famous xenoglossy cases
Some of the most well-known xenoglossy cases include:
- Gretchen. A Methodist minister hypnotized his wife to help relieve back pain. Under hypnosis, she referred to herself as “Gretchen” and started speaking German, which was allegedly unknown to her. Skeptics highlight that less than 20% (or 28 phrases) of her utterances were relevant to the questions asked. That may still be considered a reasonable amount, but due to the unknowns in subconscious language acquisition, we can’t say for certain whether it supports survival.
- Jensen. A Philadelphia doctor did a regression hypnosis on his wife. She started to speak archaic Swedish and claimed to be a personality called Jensen. Several sessions were recorded, and Swedish speakers confirmed that her responses were correct.
- Etta Wriedt was an American direct-voice medium. Unlike many other mediums, she didn’t enter trance states during the sittings. Witnesses said she could be seen talking to other sitters while foreign voices were heard speaking through a metal cone. Sittings were held in dimmed light, but the voices were said to be stronger in darkness. Wriedt knew only English, but voices were heard in over seven languages.
- Sharada. Uttara Huddar, who spoke Marathi, claimed to be a Bengali woman named Sharada. This is perhaps the case with the highest level of language skills reported. Verified claims were made about the personality Sharada. When she began to manifest, Uttara Huddar didn’t recognize her friends and family and couldn’t speak to them in Marathi – she only knew Bengali. Another remarkable feature of this case was that Sharada claimed to have died of a snakebite on the toe. Uttara’s mother reported that she had frequently dreamed of being bitten on the toe by a snake while pregnant with Uttara. On the other hand, Uttara Huddar knew basic Bengali in writing – but the variant Sharada spoke was archaic and differed from what was taught in schools.
Challenges with the survivalist interpretation
Assuming that xenoglossy involves channeling of a discarnate being, one explanation is the possibility of an overlay or interference between the “channeled” personality and the person they speak through.
People vary widely in their language acquisition skills, and since no standardized estimate exists on what sort of exposure – and how much – is required to gain low-level skills demonstrated in most xenoglossy cases, it is hard to assess the survival hypothesis using these metrics.
Savants, prodigies, and dissociative virtuosos also demonstrate extraordinary skills and abilities without consciously putting in any practice or training. Is one possible explanation for these extraordinary cases that we all have exceptional latent talents that can be triggered by various conditions, such as entering altered states of consciousness?
Fears and insecurities can sometimes withhold the expression of gifts. During altered states, such as trance channeling, these fears can be reduced, and this might support the theory that xenoglossy could simply be latent language skills that can finally emerge. But it fails to explain xenoglossy in supposed reincarnation cases, where the person remains in an ordinary state of consciousness.
In some cases, when subjects with English as a second language were age-regressed to the age before they learned English, they replied in their native language but could still understand instructions in English.
Some final remarks
Although the power of xenoglossy in suggesting survival may not be as persuasive as it first may seem, there are still some unsolved mysteries in the cases where other explanations fall short. For example, in the Jensen case, no subconscious Swedish skills were uncovered under hypnosis, making her responses in Swedish even more mysterious.
In some cases, the communicators were asked questions in a language they were not supposed to know and responded coherently in their native language, indicating that the language mastery was limited to auditory understanding. But, how the person came to possess even that level of mastery is unknown.
Historically, xenoglossy studies that focus on survival explanations have not acknowledged hypnosis, dissociation, and second-language acquisition. These components should be considered in future studies.
Xenoglossy cases are undoubtedly fascinating – but due to the complex nature of language acquisition, it does not currently provide the most compelling evidence for survival. Alternatively, mediumship provides the most compelling evidence for survival.