How to build a Babel fish (and speak an alien language!)

Douglas Adams introduced the magical concept of a ‘Babel fish’ in his legendary novel The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). The following paragraph, for those of you not in the know, is an explanation of what a Babel fish is, taken directly from his wonderful book:

“The Babel fish,” said The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quietly, “is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic mix formed by combining the unconscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.”


The Babel fish, therefore allowed Arthur Dent (the main character) to understand the language of alien life forms he encountered on his travels around the Universe.

Today, as I sat in my garden, enjoying the rare rays of hot English sunshine, drinking an ice cold beer and relaxing to the sound of our neighbours battling out heated screaming matches with their children, I realised that even humans, talking to other humans, living on the same part of the planet, speaking the same national language, even being part of the same family, could really make use of a Babel fish.

How is it that communicating with people we know can at times seem like we’re speaking completely different languages?

Why is it that some people can feel like their own siblings really are from another planet?

What happens when you think you’ve explained something perfectly well to your friend/colleague/parent/child or partner, and then they look at you perplexed, as though you’ve just grown two heads?

Perhaps it’s because we really are from different worlds.

Human brains process BILLIONS of bits of information every second, but we’re only consciously aware of around 0.0005% of it.


To demonstrate, right now, you’re probably aware of the words you’re reading, and of the light coming from the screen. You’re perhaps aware of the colour of the text and maybe the sound of your TV in the background. But, I bet you weren’t consciously aware of the feel of the clothes against the skin on your back, or the temperature of your left foot… until I just mentioned it!

Aware of just a tiny fraction of what’s actually going on around us, you begin to realise how much we’re not seeing. 

We filter out information by deleting, distorting and generalising, based on our memories, languages, experiences, values, beliefs, meta programmes and energy levels. If our memories, experiences, languages and beliefs as individuals are different, then the information we take in and pay conscious attention to will also be very different.

Add to this that we all store information differently. Think about what you had for dinner last night. You may recall a picture of what it looked like, whereas other people may instantly think about the smell or texture or taste. Perhaps when you thought about your dinner you instantly thought about the process of making it, or about the sounds you could hear?

Which one of the following do you use more often?

  • Visual (recalling events in pictures, colours, movies or stills)
  • Auditory (recalling events by sounds, tones, voices)
  • Kinaesthetic (thinking about how it felt, textures, touch, emotion)
  • Audio Digital (thinking in processes, logic, making sense of things)

When you take ALL of this into consideration, you’ll understand how each of us have INCREDIBLY unique maps of the world in which we live and that what we see, hear and feel isn’t actually reality, it’s just our unique perception of reality.

 So I conclude, that we really are ALL aliens living on our own individual planets.

 Now, if you don’t have a rocket or a space ship in your garage in order to blast off into the galaxy in search of a Babel fish, fear not. Here’s a great way to build your own – using equipment that you already own.

Step One: Install extra terrestrial system sensor

Listen to the words the alien is using. If you can work out whether they are using visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or audio-digital systems for communication, you’re onto a winner. If it says things like ‘see, picture, imagine, bright, cloudy, colourful’ – it’s probably a visual alien so it will learn things more quickly if you can show it pictures and diagrams. If you use its language by asking things like “Is that CLEAR? Can you SEE what I mean?” – you will be much more successful in communication with it.

Auditory alien words: Hear, listen, sound, resonate, tone, loud, quiet, noisy

Does that SOUND okay? Do you HEAR what I’m saying?

Kinaesthetic alien words: Feel, touch, hard, soft, felt, rough

Do you FEEL okay with that? Shall we TOUCH base when you’re back?

Auditory-digital aliens: Understand, logical, sense, talk, analyse

Does that make SENSE? If you’d like to UNDERSTAND more just ask.

Step Two: Integrate alien vocabulary

One habit humans have is to constantly use their own interpretations to assume others. I know that I’m guilty of it. A friend may say to me “It’s really important to me to be able to see that a relationship has integrity.” – and then I’ll say something like “Oh you mean that it’s really essential to feel honesty?” – NO. This is NOT what they said.  The alien specifically used the words ‘SEE’ and ‘INTEGRITY’. Don’t change the words to suit your own map of reality. Instead, use the exact language they used and your communication will strengthen tenfold.

Step Three: Activate demo button

One of the events that inspired me to write this piece was when I heard a neighbour scream at the top of their lungs, “WILL YOU SHUUUUT THE FUUUUCK UUUUUP AND BEEEEE QUIIEEEET!!”

Come on. Seriously? Would you get into your car, not put your seat belt on, and then shout at others for not putting their seat belts on? Would you stick your hands into a burning furnace as you told your kids not to play with fire?

If you’re asking an alien to do something, the best way for them to learn is for you to be able to demonstrate it. And if the alien is demonstrating behaviour you don’t like, just be certain you’re not teaching them that bad behaviour in the first place.

Step Four: Duplicate tonality

How is the alien expressing itself?  If they are of a quiet nature and using a gentle soft tone, then bowling in with a loud raucous tone will scare them off. If the alien is excitable and energised, then talking to them with low energy and no lilt will not encourage them to engage. Try matching their tone and energy and you’ll increase rapport and general understanding.

Step Five: Emulate physiology

You’ll notice that aliens who have an understanding of each other have good rapport, and when they’re in good rapport, they’ll often be matching in terms of their body language. Have a look next time you’re at the pub or in a restaurant, and notice the extra terrestrials who have similar body language.

You can also gain rapport by subtly changing your body language to reflect an alien’s. If they have one leg crossed, cross one leg. If they are sitting down, make sure that you sit down so you’re on the same eye level. If they are leaning forward slightly, lean forward slightly, but remember to be subtle. Overuse of this technique could also break rapport.

Step Six: Identify power force

Words, in all languages, can have immense power.  Learning when to use that power can have colossal impact on all life form. If an alien is going for an interview, and you say “Are you nervous?” – the first thing they have to do is consider what the word ‘nervous’ means by associating with this feeling. So, if they weren’t nervous before – they probably will be now!

Instead try “Are you feeling confident?” or “You have every reason to feel confident about this!”

Step Seven: Pilot and repeat

Congratulations! You’ve created your own fully-functional Babel fish. Now you’ve just got to get out there, practice, and see/hear/feel your communication levels soar.


Finally, and MOST importantly: remember your towel. It is after all, the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.


Anna x

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