English Language
Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

Bernstein Elaborated and Restricted Code

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Exploring the Varied Linguistic Codes in Schools: A Study of Elaborated and Restricted Codes

Every student in school uses language in their own unique way, offering an interesting and diverse environment. Interacting with different people allows for valuable learning experiences. In 1971, British sociologist Basil Bernstein, specializing in the sociology of education, introduced a theory regarding the influence of social class on language use and its impact on academic performance. This article will delve into Bernstein's study on two distinct codes: elaborated and restricted.

Educational settings often showcase examples of both elaborated and restricted codes, coexisting despite their differences. Pixabay

Before delving into Bernstein's theory, let's first establish the key definitions.

The Definitions of Elaborated and Restricted Codes by Bernstein

When exploring this topic, understanding these two main terms is crucial.

Elaborated code refers to formal language used in situations such as lectures or textbooks. It is characterized by explicit detail and directness, requiring no external context for comprehension. This code is syntactically complex, with intricate grammatical structures. It is commonly associated with higher social classes.

In contrast, restricted code refers to informal language used in close-knit communities. In such situations, external context and shared knowledge among conversation participants help convey meaning in fewer words. Restricted code is colloquial and includes non-standard or vernacular features. It is often associated with lower social classes.

With these definitions in mind, let's examine examples of each type of code.

Illustrations of Restricted and Elaborated Codes

From the above definitions, it is evident that these codes are closely related to social classes. Here are some examples to better comprehend these terms:

Restricted Code Examples:

  • Using filler words and phrases in conversations: 'you know', 'right?'
  • Using colloquial or less formal linguistic forms: 'how ya doing?', 'what you up to?'
  • Incorporating 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 detailed sentences that can be understood independently: 'Today I am going to do some grocery shopping because the fridge is empty.'
  • Employing uncommon vocabulary 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 formality and directness.

It is worth noting that individuals may switch between these codes depending on the situation. For instance, someone from a lower social class who typically uses restricted code may switch to more formal or elaborated language during a job interview. Similarly, a person from a higher social class who usually employs elaborated code may switch to more colloquial language while spending time with close family or friends.

According to Bernstein, individuals from middle-class backgrounds can easily switch between restricted and elaborated codes due to their social and geographical mobility.

Both codes have their own value and nuances, benefiting the users. Sociolinguist Labov emphasizes that no type of code is superior or inferior to the other; they are simply different.

Bernstein's Theory on Elaborated and Restricted Codes in Sociology

As the sociolinguist who initiated the exploration of different types of linguistic codes, Bernstein's theory and findings offer further context on this topic.

The Link Between Social Class and Language Codes: A Closer Look at Bernstein's Theory

Studies have revealed that there is little difference in academic performance between students from lower and higher social classes when it comes to math-based subjects. However, when it comes to language-based subjects, there is a noticeable discrepancy. This prompted linguist Basil Bernstein to delve deeper into the factors that contribute to this gap.

Bernstein's theory asserts that the language codes children use are a result of their upbringing and cultural background. Children from lower social class communities are exposed to distinct language and attitudes specific to that class, while those from middle and upper class communities are exposed to different language and attitudes. The social structure and relationships within a particular social group significantly influence the language used by its members.

Bernstein's Methodology: A Case Study

To further explore this theory, Bernstein conducted a case study with two five-year-old school children – one from a working-class background and one from a middle-class background. He showed them three pictures and asked them to describe what was happening. The pictures depicted two boys playing football and accidentally breaking a neighbor's window. The child from a working-class background responded using restricted code, while the child from a middle-class background used elaborated code.

Comparing the Two Responses

The restricted code response lacked detail and specificity, while the elaborated code response was more detailed and specific. The restricted code response was also more casual, while the elaborated code response was more formal. Moreover, the elaborated code response was easier for someone to understand without seeing the pictures, while the restricted code response would require some background knowledge or context to fully comprehend.

Bernstein's Conclusions

Based on his findings, Bernstein concluded that a correlation exists between a student's social class and their use of elaborated or restricted code. He believed that this could explain why children from working-class backgrounds tend to struggle in language-based subjects, as they are more familiar with restricted code. On the other hand, those from higher social classes have a stronger grasp of elaborated code.

Criticisms of Bernstein's Study

As with any sociolinguistic research, there have been criticisms of Bernstein's study on elaborated and restricted code. One of the critiques came from linguist Harold Rosen, who argued that Bernstein did not adequately consider the life experiences and language use of working-class individuals and how they intersect. Rosen challenged Bernstein's belief that all working-class communities use language in the same manner and emphasized that environmental, cultural, and social differences among these communities would significantly influence their language use.

Along with Rosen, linguist William Labov argued that Bernstein's study lacked sufficient evidence to support his explanation of language codes and their impact on cognitive and intellectual abilities. Labov stated that restricted code, often associated with informal situations and lower social classes, can effectively convey complexity and meaning, just like elaborated code, which is connected to formal situations and higher social classes. He also criticized Bernstein for generalizing language use across all communities within a specific social class and emphasized that all language codes hold value and are equally complex.

Understanding Elaborated Code and Restricted Code

Restricted code is commonly used in informal situations and relies on insider knowledge or external context to be understood. It employs non-standard forms, simpler sentence structures, and more idiomatic expressions. In contrast, elaborated code is typically used in formal situations and education. It is more straightforward and does not require external context for the listener to understand. Both codes are valuable and can convey complex ideas effectively, regardless of social class. Ultimately, language should not be labeled as inferior or superior based on social class and instead recognized for its diverse capabilities and functions in different contexts.

Bernstein's Theory of Elaborated and Restricted Code Revisited

In the field of linguistics, there has been much debate surrounding the use of language codes and their impact on academic performance. One prominent theory in this area was proposed by Basil Bernstein, who believed that students from working-class backgrounds struggled in language-based subjects due to their use of restricted code.

However, this theory was met with skepticism and criticism from scholars such as Harold Rosen and William Labov. They argued that teaching and resources typically use elaborated code, making it more difficult for students using restricted code to comprehend. In fact, many critics pointed out Bernstein's lack of concrete evidence and tendency to generalize in his studies, calling into question the specificity of language codes in relation to cognitive and intellectual abilities.

Despite these criticisms, it is widely accepted that the use of restricted code, with its shorter sentences, colloquial language, and limited vocabulary, may put individuals at a disadvantage compared to those using elaborated code. This is especially true in academic settings, where elaborated code is the predominant language form. As a result, teaching in elaborated code may hinder the academic performance of students who primarily use restricted code.


  • Alan Cruttenden, Language in Infancy and Childhood: A Linguistic Introduction to Language Acquisition, 1979
  • Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control: Theoretical Studies Towards a Sociology of Language, 1971
  • Harold Rosen, Language and Class: A Critical Look at the Theories of Basil Bernstein, 1972
  • William Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, 1972

Bernstein's Theory of Elaborated and Restricted Code

What is Bernstein's Restricted Code?

Bernstein's restricted code is a language form commonly used in informal situations, close-knit communities, and among lower social classes. It employs colloquial language, non-standard features, and idiomatic expressions, often requiring external context to be understood.

What was Bernstein's Theory?

Bernstein theorized that students from working-class backgrounds performed poorly in language-based subjects due to their use of restricted code. He argued that teaching usually occurs in elaborated code, which might be more challenging for students using restricted code to comprehend.

What is Elaborated Code?

Elaborated code is a language form associated with formal situations and education. It is characterized by directness, detail, and does not rely on external context for the listener to understand.

Two Main Types of Speech Codes

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

How Does Restricted Code Lead to Underachievement?

Due to its use of shorter sentences, colloquial language, and limited vocabulary, people using restricted code may face challenges compared to those using elaborated code, which is commonly used in teaching and resources. This may hinder the academic performance of individuals primarily using restricted code.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime