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Language and Disadvantage
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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3. 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 a car.
The gentlemen were crossing the road and a car knocked them down.

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).

4. 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

[w]hat 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: 163).

What 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.

4.1. 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

[w]hat 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 former.

Conventional 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…An intellectual-conceptual ['linguistic intellectual'], 'propositional' function, on the other hand, may reside in the precise, rigorous, vocabulary of substance and processes in, say, chemistry. Such language…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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