by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
Bernstein's 'elaborated' and 'restricted' codes
Since Bernstein's work is controversial, either through his
own ambiguity or through misinterpretation of its basic premises,
it is not entirely correct to subsume his views under the
rubric "language deficit." Nevertheless, like Jensen,
Bernstein appears to have oscillated between the environmentalist-deficit
view of lower-class speech to one of denying that this has
ever been the import of his work. At any rate, he has been
associated with the deficit hypothesis, and it is in this
light that we will discuss some of its main tenets.
In 1958 and 1959 Bernstein introduced the terms 'public' and
'formal' language (later to become known as 'restricted' and
'elaborated' codes, respectively). According to him, 'restricted'
code is characterised by 'the emotive rather than the logical
implications' (Bernstein, 1958: 164, cited in Edwards, 1989:
34) and seems to be employed by working-class speakers, whereas
'elaborated' code is grammatically and syntactically accurate
and is used mainly by members of the middle class. In view
of this, working-class children were, at that time, described
by him as less sensitive to words as vehicles for feelings
and ideas, and less curious about their environment. What
is particularly depressing in Bernstein's early theory is
his contention that the disadvantaged child not only lacks
critical skills but also has 'learned a self-perpetuating
code that effectively bars him from acquiring them' (Bareiter
and Engelmann, 1966: 32, cited in Edwards, 1976: 143).
Yet, the dividing line between elaborated and restricted code
is blurred in everyday speech. Let us adduce the following
examples found in Fasold (1990: 271):
The blokes what was crossing the road got knocked down by
The gentlemen were crossing the road and a car knocked them
Apparently, the first sentence is non-standard yet it is an
example of the elaborated code, as it contains a relative
and a passive clause. On the contrary, the second sentence
is couched in 'standard' forms but is more like what one finds
in restricted code, with the use of active voice and conjoining
of clauses rather than subordination.
But even if we acknowledge (and we do) that lower working-class
pupils use the restricted code more often than middle-class
students, Bernstein's assumption that the former are deficient
and even impotent to learn Standard English or develop conceptually
is certainly unacceptable. By denying disadvantaged children
the ability or potential to change, he helps widen the gap
between the classes. Later on, however, he attributed the
linguistic differences between the working- and middle class
to cultural or sociolinguistic factors-a view that echoes
the difference theorists. According to this view, the working-class
child faces problems in school because he has never questioned,
or looked for, the reasons for adults' orders, and is not
used to assuming responsibility for his actions. He feels
ill at ease with the abstract learning emphasised in schools
because he has had less experience of being presented with
problems to solve and alternatives to explore. After all,
other things being equal (which is hardly the case under society's
pressure), the working-class child sees no point in using
the elaborated code, as he can communicate effectively in
his "home" language.
Now that we have begun to understand what disadvantage is
and what it has come to be associated with, we should embark
upon the 'Standard English' debate, with a view to examining
the role of language in maintaining disadvantage in school.
More specifically, an attempt will be made to show that what
has been glossed as 'Standard English' is but a language variety
which, at a certain point in history, happened to be exalted
to the status it now enjoys. Consequently, any value judgements
as to the status of non-standard or vernacular dialects are
flagrantly biased in favour of social groups that are endowed
with power and prestige. Against this background of prejudice,
we will trace some of the problems that working-class students
are confronted with in school, while asserting that '[the
classroom] has been a total inhibitor of the natural voice'
(Creber, 1972: 111, cited in Edwards, 1976: 149).
The emergence of a 'standard'
In the past three centuries or so, linguists have interested
themselves in the study of languages considered to exist in
'standard' forms. Such languages as Latin, Ancient Greek and
Sanskrit, and subsequently English, French, Spanish, Italian
and others, have been admired, even extolled, for their putative
elegance and sophistication. Yet, under the veneer of expressiveness
and refinement, many of these languages have been established,
or rather foisted upon millions of people, 'by fire and sword'
(T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 16). Thus, along with social
status and material wealth, language was thought to serve
as yet another instrument of power. Pertaining to English,
it seems that there have always been some "language guardians"
who have seen it as their goal to defend a glorious heritage
by systematically purging their language of any supposedly
insidious contamination. For them, language was and still
is the property of the elite whose members are entitled to
make pronouncements on what is appropriate language behaviour.
John Honey has definitely aligned himself with this ideology,
in holding that
the English language needs is a form of authority that can
easily be appealed to for guidance as to the uses which are
acceptable compared with those which are not-an authority
based not on an individual's irrational likes and dislikes
but on the genuine consensus of educated opinion (Honey, 1997:
is more, these guardians of language seem to advocate the
institution of classroom drills as a useful and reasonable
means of eradicating such 'errors' as I seen him and They
was rather than as '[a] time-wasting absurdity' (T. Bex &
R. J. Watts, 1999: 21).
Going back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we
come up against a discourse community comprising "well-intentioned"
linguists and educators who assisted in establishing Standard
English as the 'legitimate language', to use Bourdieu's term.
Within a prescriptive context, they tried to inculcate an
officially sanctioned linguistic code as well as the forms
of discourse typical of this social institution. However,
most of their works, mainly grammars of English, are, with
hindsight, marred and vitiated by a number of shortcomings.
In brief, their penchant for frequent comparisons with Latin
and the tendency to present the structures of English to native
speakers as if they were learning a foreign language attest
to their desire to disseminate the kind of language that maintained
the values underpinning its use, i.e., social stratification
and disadvantage. Greenwood, studying language from a prescriptive
point of view, grapples with the notion 'grammar' by equating
it with art, as the subheading to a chapter of his book illustrates:
'Grammar is the Art of Speaking rightly'. At the end of each
chapter, he provides a set of questions and answers as a way
of testing what the students have learnt:
Q. What is Art?
A. Art is a Method or Way of doing any thing well. Therefore
the Word rightly might have been omitted in the Definition
of Grammar; for no one would suppose that Art is doing any
thing ill (quoted in T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 46).
Since it is not within the purview of the present paper to
engage in a de profundis study of the works of these educators
and their basic premises, we will not dwell on this issue.
It should only be mentioned that language can be thought of
as being socially constructed, associated as it is with perfection,
excellence, prestige, and so forth. Moreover, the social values
forged and reproduced through the education system are firmly
entrenched in the minds of many linguists and laymen, which
has far-reaching implications for students coming from poor
socio-economic backgrounds and speaking vernacular dialects.
It is to these implications that we now turn.
The language of the classroom
There is no denying that the school exerts a tremendous influence
on a child's personality-and there are several reasons for
that. First, the school is a child's first "break"
from the security (whatever this might mean) of the home;
second, it is a point of contact between Standard English
and Non Standard English Speakers-a fact that certainly poses
either positive challenges or formidable difficulties to the
young child; and third, it is called on to educate the still
pliable child at an impressionable and critical age (see Edwards,
1989: 99). Given all this, it is no wonder that the school
often becomes a nightmare for some children. Disadvantaged
children, in particular, find themselves in an even worse
condition, since they experience a discontinuity between home
and school, which precludes them from the school's social
and academic life. Entering a world of experience in which
abilities, knowledge and the very language acquired at home
are usually deemed irrelevant and thus excluded, the child
goes through a harrowing identity crisis, for
the teacher regards as cognitively indispensable is still
experienced by the pupil as a form of social control, emphasizing
his dependence on the teacher's definition of what is acceptable.
It is part of the larger process by which the 'worlds' of
home and school are separated (Edwards, 1976: 155).
This separation between home and school is engendered mainly
by the language employed by teachers and expected to be produced
by students (what is called 'classroom register'), and the
range of styles appropriate for the description and negotiation
of the subjects taught (what we call 'subject registers').
These registers, though couched in equally formal language,
are different in nature, in that the former involves a social
change on the part of the students, as they interact with,
and defer to, the teacher, while the latter require a cognitive
change in the learners, as they are called on to understand
and adopt the terminology and the specific labels in areas
such as chemistry and statistics. Of course, the difficulties
arising from this distinction between registers are actually
there and need to be attended to by all students, yet they
are more tenacious and impervious to change when it comes
to "disadvantaged" children.
4.1.1. Subject registers
'A large amount of hydrogen is made to combine with nitrogen
to make ammonia' (found in Edwards, 1976: 151).
The sentence above is a typical example of the register used
in chemistry, whereby the use of passive voice and vocabulary
seldom encountered outside the domain of an academic discipline
contribute to what has been called the 'frozen' style of academic
writing-one of its main underlying premises being the emotional
dissociation from the object of study, which strikes disadvantaged
children as unnecessary. Thousands of examples similar to
the one above could be adduced; the fact remains that educational
achievement is tantamount to adoption and acquisition of the
subtle nuances of abstract linguistic and non-linguistic meaning
with which subject registers are endowed. Interestingly, if
language can be thought to serve two main functions-that of
communicating factual information (the 'linguistic intellectual'
function) and that of signalling and maintaining group identity
and solidarity (the 'linguistic conventional' function), then
it is clearly the case that school favours and rewards the
language ['linguistic conventional'] has a sociocultural,
'performative', function, possibly that of signalling a boundary
between disciplines, or, more generally, between educated
and non-educated persons. It connotes group identity
intellectual-conceptual ['linguistic intellectual'], 'propositional'
function, on the other hand, may reside in the precise, rigorous,
vocabulary of substance and processes in, say, chemistry.
is denotative (Grillo, 1989: 206).
Nevertheless, acknowledging that there is such a distinction
between 'linguistic intellectual' and 'linguistic conventional'
functions still begs a number of questions: How are students
supposed to learn to use all the different types of subject
register? By imitation, or by grappling with subject-specific
activities in which the meaning of the linguistic form is
illustrated within the context of its function? How, and to
what extent, does the teacher play the role of mediator between
the "lay" language of his students and the register
that he wishes them to attain? Finally, would it be unfair
to argue that, by dint of the language she uses, the teacher
is implying, "This is the reality which is called geometry,
and this is how we talk about it. For the next fifty minutes
all other realities are irrelevant, so you are supposed to
subscribe to the only reality offered." There are no
straightforward answers to these questions; a reasonable response
could be to the effect that the use of Standard English, cloaked
in a wide assortment of subject registers, once again widens
the gap between middle class children-who have had potentially
more experience in problem-solving skills, as well as in choosing
from a wide range of linguistic and non-linguistic behaviours
the one that is appropriate for a specific purpose-and working-class
children, whose background is lacking in important intellectual
or cognitive stimuli.
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