The spiritual gift of interpreting tongues is a special talent given to some believers by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10). The gift of interpreting tongues is just what it sounds like. A person with the gift of interpreting tongues will exhibit the supernatural ability to translate a foreign language into the language of the hearers. While the spiritual gift interpreting tongues is separate from the gift of speaking in tongues, these two do seem to be used in conjunction with each other. (Also see: What are spiritual gifts?)
Interpreting tongues is not the same as already knowing a language and being able to translate it into another language that you know. A believer with the ability to interpret tongues will be able to understand and translate with languages the hearers are familiar with but that the translator has little to no knowledge about.
In Acts 2:4-12, we see the tongues gifts in use among the eleven apostles in Jerusalem. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking with words the Spirit gave them—words understood by every person no matter what language they spoke. The people in the crowd were "bewildered, because each one was hearing [the apostles] speak in his own language."
Someone with the gift of interpreting tongues would be able to understand what a tongues-speaker was saying even though he had no prior knowledge of the languages being used. The fact that the tongues-interpreter has no prior knowledge of the language is what makes this such a supernatural gift. There's no other explanation than God giving them knowledge to communicate the message to anyone listening who did not understand that language.
The goal of interpreting tongues is so that all present may understand and benefit from the spiritual truths being spoken. According to the apostle Paul, the gift of tongues was to be used exclusively to communicate God's message directly to another person in their own native language. If no interpreter was present when the tongues-speaker spoke, then no one would know what was being said and the gift would be rendered useless (1 Corinthians 14:5, 12). That's why the tongues-interpreter was needed—so they could interpret the speech and enlighten other believers.
One of the issues Paul addresses for the Corinthian church is that they had tongues-speakers who spoke during services, using languages unknown by anyone there. As you can imagine, this is pretty confusing to the listeners, especially considering no tongues-interpreter was present to help people understand by translating. There's really no point to speaking in tongues if no one knows what you're saying!
So in his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul stresses the need for a tongues-interpreter when tongues are being spoken: "In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:19). Exercising the gift of speaking in tongues within the church just to show off that one has the gift is a prideful, conceited action and of no benefit to the church. In fact, Paul says that tongues-speakers should just be quiet if there isn't a tongues-interpreter present, keeping their words between them and God (1 Corinthians 14:28).
Present-day speaking in tongues is a widely debated topic among Christians today. 1 Corinthians 13:8 mentions that the gift of tongues will "cease," but the Bible does not conclusively tell us that the gift of speaking in tongues has ceased at this point in time.
That said, any church claiming to have tongues-speakers today would need to be in agreement with the Bible in how tongues are used. Tongues-speaking and tongues-interpretations serve the purpose of communicating God's Word with a person of another language (Acts 2:6-12). There must be no confusion about the message, "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33). If speaking in tongues was used today, only real and understandable languages would be spoken (1 Corinthians 14:10), meaning languages already used by a people group but unknown to the speaker.
Yes, God could give someone the gift of speaking in tongues for the purpose of equipping him or her to communicate with a person who speaks another language. And, if necessary, God could also provide the gift of tongues-interpretation for someone with the speaker. Yet most believers who claim to practice the gift of speaking in tongues are not practicing it the way the Bible says to. Therefore, we can conclude that the gift of tongues may have ceased or is at least extremely rare in God's plan for the church today.
A person with the gift of interpreting tongues will exhibit the supernatural ability to translate a foreign language into the language of the hearers—the interpreter having no prior knowledge of this language. The goal of interpreting tongues is so that all present may understand and benefit from God's message, spoken directly to people in their own native language. Tongues-interpretation was vital to tongues-speakers, for if no interpreter were present, then no one would know what was being said and the gift of tongues would be rendered useless (1 Corinthians 14:5, 12).
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.