The power of speech

6th October 2000 at 01:00

THE death of Basil Bernstein on September 24 has deprived the academic community of one of the most imaginative sociologists of his generation.

Basil was at the Institute of Education, University of London from 1963 until his retirement in 1990. His major contribution was to demonstrate how nearly every aspect of a child's life was affected by the language used by its parents.

He understood the power of language in social interaction; his distinction between elaborated and restricted codes was only one aspect of a much more complex theory.

His theory about language codes was seized upon by those seeking to explain why working-class children under-achieved at school. It was interpreted to mean that whereas middle-class children had access to both elaborated language, including academic discourse, and more intimate, personal speech forms, working-class children were often limited to the latter - their restricted code.

Basil did say this but he was more interested in the way that language worked as a crucial factor in all kinds of social interaction and social control. His work was not recognised for some years, partly because because his own writing was not easy to grasp.

His own family was distinctly middle-class, and Basil was sent to school at Christ's Hospital in London (where he was not happy and did not shine academically).

In 1947, he went to the LSE, where he was fascinated by sociological ideas but was an extremely awkward student. His combination of brillance, imagination and inability to take advice resulted in a lower second-class degree.

Basil then decided to train as a teacher. But in those days (1951) there was little call for sociology teachers except as teachers of "liberal studies" in colleges of further education. He took up a job at the City Day College teaching day-release students. Importantly, this provided him with the working-class raw material for his early empirical studies of language.

Although he hated the whole structure and ethos of the college, which he often described as the "arse-end of the educational universe", he stayed six years and benefited greatly from the interaction ith boys whose background was so different from his own. His first publications date from work carried out there.

Eventually Basil managed to escape by obtaining a three-year Social Science Research Council fellowship at University College, London.

This was an extremely important period in his life: Donald Furth, then editor of Speech and Language, welcomed him into the phonetics department, although it was not the most obvious location for Basil's work, and encouraged him to write and publish.

Another important influence at this time was Frieda Goldman-Eisler, whose studies of the hesitation analysis of speech added another empirical dimension to Basil's evidence. (Goldman-Eisler showed that pausing in speech was related to thinking time or the planning of more complex speech forms; Bernstein was able to demonstrate a social class relationship.)

Unfortunately, Basil and Frieda had a major quarrel some time in 1962, and his references to her work faded away.

It was during his UCL years that I met Basil and became his first PhD student.

In 1963 he was appointed as a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education - a much better intellectual base for Basil; his research and the sociology department expanded steadily.

Basil was a splendid PhD supervisor, full of ideas and suggestions. But he liked to push students to the limit, occasionally making outrageous suggestions. Sometimes it was necessary to shout at him to bring him back to reality.

Basil progressed to being a reader in 1965 and a professor in 1967. He was an unorthodox but effective teacher and soon had large numbers of students on diploma and MA courses as well as plenty of research students. He not only developed sociological research but encouraged a culture of funded research throughout the institute.

From the 1970s Basil was an international figure in the world of sociology and education, receiving many honours for his writing (which never improved in style). He will be greatly missed.

Dennis Lawton was director of the Institute of Education from 1983 to 1989. There will be a memorial event for Basil Bernstein at the Institute of Education later this year.

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