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Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

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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.

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.

This article will be looking at his study of elaborated and restricted code.

Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code + Education + StudySmarterEducational settings are commonly where examples of elaborated and restricted codes can be found together, Pixabay

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

These are the two main terms you'll need to understand before exploring the topic further.

Elaborated code refers to the language used in formal situations. It is often compared to the kind of language your teacher might use or the kind you see in a textbook. Elaborated code is associated with explicit detail and directness and does not require external context to be understood. Utterances of elaborated code tend to be more syntactically complex, meaning they have a more varied and complex grammatical structure. Elaborated code tends to be associated with higher social classes.

Restricted code refers to the language used in informal situations and close-knit communities. In these situations, spoken utterances 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 few words. Restricted code is more colloquial and often uses non-standard or vernacular features. Restricted code tends to be associated with lower social classes.

Hopefully, these definitions have given you a good idea of what this article will explore. Let's have a look at some examples of each type of code.

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 + Code Switching + StudySmarterCode-switching allows people to switch between languages or language varieties, Pixabay

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 - elaborated and restricted codes in sociology

As Bernstein was the sociolinguist who spearheaded the exploration of different kinds of linguistic code, we'll now look at his theory and findings for more context within the topic.

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 + Different Language Codes + StudySmarterChildren using restricted code tended to perform less highly than those using elaborated code, Pixabay

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

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 + Bernstein Criticisms + StudySmarterCriticism is part and parcel of carrying out any kind of sociolinguistic study, Pixabay

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) 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) 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, as opposed to students who used elaborated code.
  • Bernstein's study has many critics who comment on his lack of concrete evidence and his tendency to generalise.

References

  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

Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

Bernstein's restricted code is a language form 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. 

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. 

Elaborated code is a language form 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.

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

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. 

Final Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code Quiz

Question

What is restricted code?

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Answer

Restricted code is a language form that is commonly associated with informal situations, colloquial/non-standard language features, and idioms. Restricted code often requires external context or shared insider knowledge to be understood and is often linked to the working-classes. 

Show question

Question

What is elaborated code?

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Answer

Elaborated code is a language form that is commonly associated with formal situations and education, and includes very detailed and syntactically complex utterances. External context is not required for elaborated code to be understood, and it is most often linked to higher social classes. 

Show question

Question

Who came up with the idea of elaborated and restricted codes?

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Answer

Basil Bernstein in 1971

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Question

Which of these is an example of elaborated code?

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Answer

"If you're going to the centre of Canterbury today, please can you buy Fluffy, the cat, some Whiskers cat food?"

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Question

True or false: elaborated code is the language form most commonly used by teachers, textbooks, and other learning resources.

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Answer

True

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Question

What subjects did working-class students struggle with compared with middle-class students?

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Answer

Language-based subjects

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Question

In what subjects were there no discernible difference in performance between working-class and middle-class students?

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Answer

Mathematical-based subjects

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Question

What profession did Basil Bernstein have?

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Answer

Educational sociologist

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Question

Which type of language code are filler words more associated with?

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Answer

Restricted code

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Question

What is code-switching?

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Answer

Code-switching is when people who speak multiple languages switch between them in conversation. It can also refer to when someone switches between different forms of the same language.

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Question

Which social class is the most likely to use both elaborated and restricted code?

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Answer

Middle-class, as they are more socially, culturally, and geographically mobile.

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Question

What did Bernstein conclude?

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Answer

He concluded that children from working-class backgrounds struggled with language-based subjects because they had a harder time understanding the elaborated code used by the teachers.

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Question

What did Bernstein ask the 5-year-old children to describe?

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Answer

A series of three pictures he showed them. The pictures depicted two boys playing football and breaking a window with the ball.

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Question

Why did Labov criticise Bernstein's investigation?

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Answer

He said that Bernstein didn't have enough evidence to support his conclusions, and that he generalised too much, not acknowledging the diversity and value of restricted codes. 

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Question

What social factors will influence the type of language code a person uses?

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Answer

  • The relationships they form within their class communities.
  • The language used by their families, friends, and others around them.
  • The kinds of experiences each individual goes through.

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Question

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

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Answer

How a person's linguistic use can impact academic performance.

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Question

Which kind of code uses more idiomatic language?

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Answer

restricted code

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Question

Is this an example of elaborated or restricted code: 'The shop clerk treated me very kindly, even when I was taking up a lot of time having trouble choosing between two paint shades.'

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Answer

Elaborated code

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Question

True or false: the different codes are used by different social classes exclusively. 

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Answer

False, any social class can use language forms belonging to either kind of code. Language use is fluid and will depend on many factors. 

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Question

Which linguist said no type of code is better or worse than the other and that they both have their nuances and value?

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Answer

William Labov

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Question

According to Bernstein, the language a child uses will result from?

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Answer

environmental and cultural conditioning

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What did Harold Rosen say about Bernstein's study of elaborated and restricted code?

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Answer

He thought Bernstein's explanation of his findings was reductive and assumed that all working classes used language in the same way. He said Bernstein ignored the environmental, cultural, and social differences experienced by each working-class community.

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Question

Which of these is a common feature of elaborated code?

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Answer

Longer, more complex sentences

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Which type of code is generally associated with more formal situations?

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Answer

Elaborated code

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Question

_______ and _______ within a social group will significantly affect the language used in that group. Fill in the blanks.

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Answer

Social structure and relationships

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