Speech and language are important aspects of communication and a child’s ability to learn is related to their ability to communicate effectively with adults and other children.
A child with more developed speech and language skills can learn faster than those with less developed skills, and thus will have better educational achievement.
Moreover a child’s ability at language (in English Language key stage tests, for example) is in fact a measure of their level of educational achievement, so in one respect, a child’s ability to communicate (at least in formal tests) is the same as their level of educational attainment!
This post summarises and evaluates Basil Bernstein’s work on speech patterns.
Basil Bernstein (1) developed the theory that there are two different types of speech patterns, or speech codes: the restricted code and the elaborated code, the later having a wider vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures than the former.
He theorised that the working classes were largely limited to speaking in the restricted code, while the middle classes used both the elaborate and restricted codes, and that the limited use of the restricted code by working class children explained their relative underachievement in education compared to middle class children.
The restricted speech code
Bernstein stated that restricted speech codes are characterised by ‘short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences’.
This code has limited use of adjectives or adverbs and meanings are often conveyed by gesture and voice intonation.
The restricted code tends to operate in terms of particularistic meanings – it is usually linked to a specific context and utterances only make sense to people in that immediate context.
It is a sort of short hand between close friends or partners that have a shared understanding of a social situation such that there is no need to spell out meanings in any great detail.
The elaborated speech code
Elaborated speech code has a wider vocabulary and uses more complex grammatical structures than the restricted code.
It provides more in-depth explanations of meanings than the restricted speech code does and thus operates in terms of universalistic meanings: listeners do not need to be embedded in a specific context to fully understand what is being communicated.
To illustrate the difference between the two speech codes consider a cartoon strip of four pictures:
- Some boys playing football
- The ball breaking a window
- A woman looking out of the window and a man shaking his fist
- The boys running away.
A middle class child speaking the elaborated code would be able to describe the pictures in such a way that you wouldn’t need the pictures to fully understand the story, everything would be explained in detail. The explanation here would be free of the context, universal!
A working class child speaking the restricted code would refer to the pictures so that you would need to see the pictures to understand the story. The explanation here would remain dependent on the context.
Speech patterns and educational attainment
Formal education is conducted in the elaborated speech code, so working class kids are automatically at a disadvantage compared to middle class kids.
The elaborated code is necessary to make generalizations and to be able to understand higher order concepts.
Bernstein found that middle class children were much more able to classify things such as food into higher order categories such as vegetables, or meats, for example. Working class kids were more likely to classify them according to personal experiences such as ‘things mum cooks for me’.
Evaluations of Bernstein
His concept of social class is too vague. Sometimes he refers to the working class, others he talks about the lower working class. He also puts all non-manual workers into ‘middle class’ thus ignoring variation between the middle classes.
Bernstein also provides only limited examples of the two types of speech code. He does not make a convincing case that either of them actually exist in reality!
Labov (1973) criticized Bernstein for alluding to the elaborated code being superior, whereas in reality working class and middle class speech are just different, it is only the cultural dominance of the elaborated code in education that makes it seem superior.
The language of African Americans and White Americans can be very different, but it is historically Anglo-American English which is taught as standard English in schools.
Thus African American pupils in the USA have had a particularly negative experience of language in school, often experiencing school as a linguistically and culturally alienating environment.
Rather than their children feeling alienated, some activists adopted ‘Ebonics’ (the language of African Americans) as a medium of instruction, celebrating their linguistic heritage and pointing out differences with the ‘standard’ Anglo-American English.
Ebonics has highlighted the following:
- it has indicated the extent to which language plays a role in educational success or failure.
- It raised questions about the appropriateness of standard English in assessments.
- It highlighted cultural tensions between several minority pupils in schools and the school curriculum.
This topic is relevant to the sociology of education, especially the issue of social class differences in educational achievement.
(1) Bernstein (1971) Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1.
Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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