Basil Bernstein’s Language Code Theory: Explained

Basil Bernstein’s Language Code Theory, Basil Bernstein is the first sociologist to connect the disciplines of sociology and linguistics within the field of education. Being an educator and a sociologist in 19th century Britain, he took the chance to observe the performances of the working-class and middle-class children and came up with the theory about the relationship between social class and the language development of a child and how it affects his academic scores. His theory of language code officially came out in 1971 with his book Class, Codes and Control, where he explained the terms Restricted and Elaborated code.

The term “code” refers to the guiding principles that govern the procedures for associating, selecting, and organizing speech by individuals. (Bernstein, 1962) Therefore, it stands to reason that constrained and developed codes will produce various types of control, which will then materialize as aspects of the nature of verbal planning. The latter is a consequence of the factors that set the patterns of orientation, association, and organization that exist within the system. The nature of the social interaction, or the quality of the social structure more generally, would be the three factors that first determined their relationship with one another. This would make it possible to propose the following: the form of the social relationship regulates the nature of the interaction by acting selectively on the kind of code, which then becomes a symbolic expression of the relationship. On a more fundamental level, the code acts as a medium through which the psychological effects of the form of social interaction are communicated and maintained. The code, which would mark out what needs to be learned and would constrain the conditions of successful learning, would elicit, sustain, and generalize strategic learning. This learning would be elicited, sustained, and generalized. (Bernstein, 1960)

Restricted Code– The speech and the written language tend to be concrete, and the range of vocabulary is narrow. This code is used by working, and middle-class families; Bernstein reckons them as public expressions. One of the characteristics of a restricted code is its particularism, both in terms of its meaning and the social framework that governs its inception. The speech model that is used for this code is universalistic because its application is predicated on the qualities of a certain type of social connection, which may manifest themselves at any stage of the social structure.

Elaborated Code– This is verbally expressive. This code is used by the middle class, and Bernstein reckons them as formal expressions. When it comes to its meaning, an elaborated code is universalistic, and when it comes to the social structure that controls its origin, it has the capacity to be universalistic. The speech model that should be used for this code in modern civilizations is particularistic.

As it provides a concise summary of basic societal means and goals, an extended code might be considered universalistic in terms of the meaning it conveys. Therefore, the degree of elaboration is a function of the broadness of the means and the ends, whereas the degree of restriction is a function of the specificity of the social means and the end.

Basil Bernstein’s main focus was to postulate that a person’s oral and written language uses vary highly according to the social class he belongs to. To be more precise, he mentioned two different classes- the poor class and the middle class. The poor class refers to a type where the father is the primary wage earner. On the contrary, a middle-class family refers to a family where both parents work, where the father is a professional instead of a laborer. (Bernstein & Henderson,1969)

Bernstein did not only attempt to distinguish the linguistic ability determined by social classes, but he also wanted to imply that the cognitive expression of a student depends highly on his fundamental knowledge of the language- which leads us back to the SES (socio-economic status) of the student’s family. Middle-class children grow up in a rational family structure and are taught to associate their means and end in a socially recognized way. Besides, they understand that educational institutions play a significant role in their aims and aspirations. This moral is absent in working-class families.

Middle-class children are always made clear of family values, and these rules direct their behavior. In a working-class family, there are no specific family values; the behavior is regulated according to temporal needs. To a working-class child, the present moment is the most important. As a result, he is prone to make impromptu decisions. (Bernstein, 1964) Whereas in the middle-class family, there are rules about appropriate verbal reactions, in the lower-income family, these rules are almost invisible. The term elaborated code refers to how middle-class children are taught to use verbal expressions. With these regulations, certain verbal expressions that display negativity are highly discouraged in this class.

1. Sociological determinants (i.e. w-class/m-class environment)

 2. Mode of cognitive expression

3. Educational performance

Bernstein implied that working-class children are oriented to local code and cannot let their cognitive potentials out, which hampers their academic achievements. Regardless of the levels of natural intelligence possessed by the children who are members of each of these separate social strata, they will be subjected to various orders of learning, and as a consequence, their modes of self-regulation and orientation will be distinct. The total consequence of the constraint of a restricted code will be to inhibit the ability to generalize at higher ranges, reduce the relevance of the concrete and descriptive level of response, and reduce the possibility for linguistic skill. At the same time, it will strengthen the sense of community that the developing child has with his or her contemporaries, which will, in turn, strengthen the sense of community inside the code. (Bernstein,2006) Children from the middle class and the social strata immediately next to it will be presented with a restricted code as well as an elaborated code, and consequently, they will be exposed to the possibilities that are symbolized by both of these codes.

Basil Bernstein’s language code theory can be used to understand the problems of an education system. At least that’s one of the ambitions Bernstein had while arguing with this theory. Despite the criticisms by many sociologists later on, language code theory is still considered essential in the field of Sociology of Education.

Also Read; Sociology of Language


Bernstein, B. (1960). Language and Social Class. The British Journal of Sociology, 11(3), 271–276.

Bernstein, B. (1962). Social class, linguistic codes and grammatical elements. Language and speech, 5(4), 221-240.

Bernstein, B., & Henderson, D. (1969). Social class differences in the relevance of language to socialization. Sociology, 3(1), 1-20.

Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and restricted codes: Their social origins and some consequences. American anthropologist, 66(6), 55-69.

Bernstein, B. (2006). Vertical and horizontal discourse: An essay. In Education and society (pp. 53-73). Routledge.

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Mahratun Samha, UG Student at Department of Sociology in University of Dhaka