Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

No matter where you've gone to school, you've probably noticed that different students have different ways of using language. These individual differences between students are part of what makes going to school so interesting and varied. We end up learning a lot just from interacting with different people, which sometimes results in elaborated and restricted code. 

Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

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Table of contents

    In 1971, Basil Bernstein, a British sociologist with a particular interest in the sociology of education, had a theory about how social class can impact linguistic use and how a person's linguistic use can affect their academic performance.

    Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code Teacher and students in a classroom, the students are raising their hands to answer a question StudySmarterFig 1. - Bernstein's elaborated and restricted code is a sociolinguistic concept that describes the two distinct ways of speaking that individuals use in different social situations.

    Before we dive straight into Bernstein's theory and how he carried out his study, let's get some key definitions down first.

    Bernstein's elaborated and restricted codes

    Bernstein's language code refers to the concept of elaborated and restricted codes of communication, which he developed as a sociolinguistic theory. According to Bernstein, individuals from different social classes have varying degrees of exposure to and mastery of elaborated and restricted codes of communication.

    Elaborated code refers to the language used in formal situations. Teachers, textbooks, and exam papers use this kind of language. It is characterized by its use of a wide range of vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and precise grammatical conventions. Elaborated code is often associated with individuals from higher social classes who have had access to formal education and are familiar with the conventions of academic or professional communication.

    Restricted code refers to the language used in informal situations and close-knit communities. It is characterized by its use of simpler vocabulary, shorter sentence structures, and less precise grammatical conventions. Restricted code is often associated with individuals from lower social classes who may not have had access to formal education or exposure to more complex forms of communication.

    Differences between Elaborated and Restricted Codes
    Elaborated CodeRestricted Code

    Elaborated code is associated with explicit detail and directness and does not require external context to be understood.

    Spoken utterances with restricted code are often dependent on external context or the shared knowledge of the conversation participants to be understood. This allows for a lot of meaning to be conveyed in a few words.

    Utterances of elaborated code tend to be more syntactically complex, meaning they have a more varied and complex grammatical structure.

    Restricted code is more colloquial and often uses non-standard or vernacular features.
    Elaborated code tends to be associated with higher social classes.

    Restricted code tends to be associated with lower social classes.

    Bernstein's theory argues that these two codes reflect the different experiences and cultural values of different social classes and that the use of a particular code can affect a person's social mobility and opportunities.

    Bernstein's restricted code and elaborated code: examples

    From the definitions above, you can see that these different language codes tend to relate to different social classes. To better understand these terms, here are some examples:

    Restricted code examples

    • Adding filler words and phrases into a conversation: 'you know', 'right?'
    • Using less formal or more colloquial linguistic forms:
      • 'how ya doing?'
      • 'what you up to?'
    • Using more idiomatic language:
      • 'He let the cat out of the bag.'
      • 'piece of cake'.
    • Referring to shared knowledge: 'can you pass me the thingamajig.'

    Elaborated code examples

    • Using fuller and more detailed sentences, to the point where they can be understood on their own: 'Today I am going to do some grocery shopping because the fridge is empty.'
    • Using more uncommon vocabulary words and synonyms:
      • 'The old man was being particularly cantankerous.'
      • 'The sunset is quite ineffable tonight; I've never seen such beautiful colours!'
    • Avoiding idioms as this code is associated with formal situations and being direct.

    It's worth noting that elaborated and restricted codes are not always used exclusively by one social class. Whilst the term 'code-switching' is usually used to describe when bilingual people alternate between two languages in conversation, it can also be applied to switching between elaborated and restricted code.

    Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code A girl sitting and looking at a laptop in front of a blackboard where there is hello written in different languages StudySmarterFig. 2 - Code-switching allows people to switch between languages or language varieties.

    For instance, someone from a lower social class that usually uses restricted code might code-switch to more formal or elaborated language in certain situations (such as attending an interview). Likewise, someone from a higher social class who usually uses elaborated code might sometimes switch to more colloquial language (spending time with close family or friends, for example).

    According to Bernstein, people from middle-class backgrounds often move between restricted and elaborated codes easily as they tend to be more geographically and socially mobile.2

    Both language codes have their benefits and nuances, and value to the people who use them. Labov, for example, emphasised that no type of code is better or worse than the other, they are simply different.4

    Bernstein's elaborated and restricted codes in Sociology

    As Bernstein was the sociolinguist who spearheaded the exploration of different kinds of linguistic codes in sociology. Bernstein's exploration of language codes has had a significant impact on sociological studies of children and adults, so his methodology and findings must be studied.

    Bernstein's theory

    As Basil Bernstein's primary sociological concern revolved around education, the starting point for his 1971 investigation was the observation that students from higher social classes tended to perform better at language-based subjects than those from lower social classes.

    He noted that students from lower social classes performed just as well in mathematical subjects as those from higher social classes, so he wondered why the discrepancy emerged with language-based topics.2

    Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code Thinking stick man figure StudySmarterFig. 3 - Children using restricted code tended to perform less highly than those using elaborated code.

    Bernstein theorised that the linguistic codes children use result from environmental and cultural conditioning. Children who grow up in lower social class communities are exposed to language and attitudes characteristic of that class.

    The same goes for children growing up in middle and higher social classes. Social structure and relationships formed within a particular social group largely influence the language used by that group.

    Bernstein's methodology

    Bernstein selected two five-year-old school children, one from a working-class background and one from a middle-class background, and showed them three pictures.

    He asked the children to describe what they could see in the pictures. The pictures told a story of two boys playing football and breaking a neighbour's window. These are the descriptions given by the two five-year-old children:

    • 'They're playing football and he kicks it and it goes through there, it breaks the window and they're looking at it and he comes out and shouts at them because they've broken it so they run away and then she looks out and she tells them off.' 1
    • 'Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball and it goes through the window and the ball breaks the window and the boys are looking at it and a man comes out and shouts at them because they've broken the window so they run away and then that lady looks out of her window and she tells the boys off.' 1

    The first description is an example of restricted code and came from a child from a working-class background. The second description is an example of elaborated code and came from a child from a middle-class background.

    Let's look at the differences between the two descriptions:

    • The restricted code example uses less specific language and notes fewer details, whereas the elaborated code is more detailed and specific.
    • The restricted code answer sounds more casual, whereas the elaborated code version sounds more formal.
    • When reading the elaborated code answer, you can tell what the pictures are about without seeing them. In contrast, the restricted code answer would require some background context for the reader (or listener) to understand fully.

    Bernstein's conclusions

    Based on the evidence gathered in his investigation, Basil Bernstein concluded that there was a correlation between a student's social class and their use of elaborated or restricted code.

    He believed that a possible explanation for why children from working-class backgrounds didn't perform as highly in language-based subjects as children from middle-class backgrounds is due to their exposure to and use of different language forms.

    In other words, because the students from working-class backgrounds were familiar with and raised in communities using largely restricted code, that became the kind of language they had the best understanding of.

    Students from higher social classes would have been raised in communities using mainly elaborated code, understanding it and being more familiar with it.

    Because elaborated code is typically the type of language code used by teachers, textbooks, and other educational resources, the children from higher social classes would have an advantage in understanding the teacher and completing exams in elaborated code. The children from lower social classes would have been less familiar with elaborated code, and therefore, their understanding and use of it might have been impacted.2

    Elaborated and restricted code: criticisms of Bernstein's language code investigation

    Criticism is an inevitable part of any sociolinguistic investigation, and Bernstein's study of elaborated and restricted code was no exception.

    Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code A woman with a blue jacket holding up a sign that reads really StudySmarterFig. 4 - Criticism is part and parcel of carrying out any kind of sociolinguistic study.

    Although Bernstein's theory of elaborated and restricted code has contributed much to sociolinguistics, it is by no means a perfect explanation. Numerous linguists offer critiques of Bernstein's study.

    Harold Rosen (1972)

    Harold Rosen (1972) criticised Bernstein's investigation because he didn't believe that Bernstein looked closely enough at working-class life experiences and language use and the interplay between the two.

    He felt that Bernstein assumed that all working classes used language in the same way when in fact, the environmental, cultural, and social differences experienced by each working-class community would have significantly influenced their language use.3 Rosen saw Bernstein's explanation of language codes as reductive.

    William Labov (1972)

    William Labov (1972) stated that Bernstein's investigation did not provide sufficient evidence. Therefore, Bernstein couldn't prove that there was a qualitative difference between the two language codes that would result in cognitive and intellectual differences.

    Labov argued that restricted code could be used to express meaning and elaborate on a point to the same extent as elaborated code. He also criticised Bernstein for generalising across all communities within a certain social class and said that all language codes have their value and merit. Restricted codes aren't inferior to elaborated codes and can be just as complex.4

    Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code - Key Takeaways

    • Restricted code is associated with informal situations and requires external context or shared insider knowledge to be understood. It uses non-standard forms, simpler syntax, and more idioms.
    • Elaborated code is associated with formal situations and education, and elaborated utterances can stand alone without depending on external context. It uses standard language forms, more complex syntax, and more detail.
    • Restricted code is most commonly linked to lower social classes, whereas elaborated code is linked to higher social classes.
    • Bernstein believed that students from working-class backgrounds performed poorly in language-based subjects due to their use of restricted code. Students who used elaborated code often found better social mobility and opportunities.
    • Bernstein's study has many critics who comment on his lack of concrete evidence and his tendency to generalise.


    1. Alan Cruttenden, Language in Infancy and Childhood: A Linguistic Introduction to Language Acquisition, 1979
    2. Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Language, 1971
    3. Harold Rosen, Language and Class: a Critical Look at the Theories of Basil Bernstein, 1972
    4. William Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, 1972
    Frequently Asked Questions about Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

    What is Bernstein's restricted code?

    Bernstein's restricted code is a language code associated with informal situations, close-knit communities, and lower-social classes. It is more colloquial, uses non-standard features and idioms, and often requires external context to be understood. 

    What was Bernstein's theory?

    Bernstein theorised that students from working-class backgrounds didn't perform as well as those from higher social classes in language-based subjects due to their use of restricted code. Teaching most commonly occurs in elaborated code, and Bernstein theorised that this would be more difficult for students who use restricted code to understand. 

    What is Bernstein's elaborated code?

    Elaborated code is a language code associated with formal situations and education and is usually very direct and detailed. External context is not required for elaborated code utterances to be understood.

    What are the two main speech codes?

    The two main types of linguistic code are elaborated and restricted code. 

    How does restricted speech code lead to underachievement?

    Because restricted code is characterised by short, simple sentences, colloquial language use, and limited vocabulary, people using restricted code might be at a disadvantage as opposed to those using elaborated code. This is because teachers, textbooks, and other learning resources generally use elaborated code, making them less accessible to people using restricted code. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these is an example of elaborated code?

    What profession did Basil Bernstein have?

    Which of these was one of Bernstein's key concerns?

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