Opening General Session speaker to illustrate how the power of language supports innovation.

In 2012, the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) demonstrated how a subtle change in terminology can transform how customers, elected officials, and communities value the work of water professionals.

At first glance, changing wastewater treatment plants to water resource recovery facilities may seem purely cosmetic. But as different segments of the water sector gradually adopted this term, the message also spread that wastewater treatment is about more than managing waste — it’s about water reuse, nutrient recovery, energy generation, and creating a more sustainable world.

During the WEFTEC® 2019 Opening General Session, keynote speaker Dr. Lera Boroditsky will provide a unique perspective on why words matter. She will explain how the words we use shape public perception and how those perceptions translate into action. Dr. Boroditsky, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California in San Diego and founding editor of the journal Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, will discuss research-backed ways water professionals can communicate the value of water more effectively with those who need to hear our message the loudest.

Boroditsky spoke with Justin Jacques, an editor for Water Environment & Technology magazine, about her work and what WEFTEC attendees will learn from her keynote address.

Q: For those unfamiliar with your work, could you give us a sense of your professional background and what first attracted you to the study of language?

A: I have a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Stanford (Calif.) University and have served on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge), at Stanford, and at the University of California in San Diego. I run a lab and do research on language and cognition around the world, anywhere from small aboriginal communities in Australia to China, Russia, Chile, Indonesia, Europe, and so on.

Language is the most complex and sophisticated tool humans have ever invented. It allows us to not only build an infinite set of new ideas in our own minds but also to communicate these ideas to other minds, across vast reaches of time and space. Human languages are exquisitely structured and complex. I have always wanted to understand how we humans get to be so smart, how we come to build the incredibly sophisticated knowledge structures we invent, and language is a crucial part of that story.

Lera Boroditsky
Lera Boroditsky


The WEFTEC 2019 Opening General Session kicks off at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 23 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

The complete interview with Dr. Lera Boroditsky appears in the August 2019 issue of Water Environment & Technology magazine. Water Environment & Technology is the official magazine of WEFTEC.

Q: For the water sector, confronting global challenges like water security and climate change calls for greater collaboration between cultures. What are some approaches we can take as individuals to reduce confusion and make the most of cultural differences?

A: There is certainly plenty of opportunity for miscommunication and confusion. But the confusion doesn’t just happen in communication, often it starts in our own minds. Any particular way any language or culture has of thinking about a complex issue like the global water supply will only be a limited understanding, will include only some elements of the problem, and omit many others. The opportunity to work with others around the world who come from other perspectives gives us a chance to enrich our own understanding, to build a more sophisticated and complex representation of the problem. The richer our understanding, the closer we can get to a good set of solutions.

So, it’s important to remember that good communication is not just about getting others to understand your perspective, but also allowing yourself to listen and learn and enrich your own understanding in the process.

As the Dalai Lama advises, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen, you may learn something new.” Or as Calvin Coolidge once said, “No man has ever listened his way out of a job.”

: You’ve spent years intimately studying little-known languages and cultures from around the world. Can you think of an example of a culture that perceives or manages water and sanitation issues differently than American English speakers do as a result of language differences?

A: One place to look would be to see what kinds of language people use for conservation. For example, in English we often use the verb “save” in ways that speakers of other languages find nonsensical. A store might invite you to “save money” by buying lots of stuff at their annual sale. In other languages, you can’t save money by buying things. The only way you save money is by not buying things.

To anyone interested in a fascinating cross-cultural look at water use, I have to recommend the book Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali by J. Stephen Lansing. The book describes the traditions and beliefs among the Balinese that allow an incredibly complex and balanced water-management system to emerge at the scale of whole watersheds.


Q: Based on your research, how do you think the switch from wastewater treatment plant to water resource recovery facility influences public perception of the work water professionals perform?

A: That’s an interesting empirical question! Without doing the experiments I can only speculate, but this change in terminology is making use of a powerful aspect of language. Language allows us to focus attention on a specific aspect of reality, to highlight some things and omit others. For example, if I tell people a burger is “80% lean,” they like that more than a burger that’s “20% fat” even though those are describing the same burger.

Words bring to mind their close neighbors and associates. Words like waste and treatment have lots of negative neighbors and associations. The phrase wastewater treatment plant draws attention to dirty, unsanitary water, but doesn’t necessarily make clear why there needs to be a treatment for it or what that accomplishes.

The phrase water resource recovery facility downplays the notion of wastewater but draws attention to the idea of water as a scarce resource to be valued and focuses on the goal of the process: to recover this precious resource.


Q: What would you like WEFTEC attendees to take away from your talk at the Opening General Session?

A: Language is a powerful tool for creating ideas and shaping the ways we think. But we shouldn’t simply take the structures of our language as if they reflect reality. Languages are living tools that humans can shape to best suit their needs. To continue to innovate and thrive, we must innovate the ways we think, and language is a powerful source to help us invent and spread new ideas.


The complete interview with Dr. Lera Boroditsky appears in the August 2019 issue of Water Environment & Technology magazine.

Water Environment & Technology is the official magazine of WEFTEC.

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