Sign language is one of the most popular and widespread forms of communication on the planet, and knowing a form of it, such as American Sign Language (ASL) is a useful skill for even those who don’t rely on it. If you have a loved one or a colleague who is D/deaf or Hard of Hearing, learning even a few words of sign language can be helpful.
There are many resources for those who want to learn how to sign, such as YouTube and Lifeprint. But considering how attached most of us are to our phones and tablets, you may want to use such a device to help you learn another language. After all, Duolingo has been enormously popular with those who want to learn other spoken languages, due to the convenience of learning in small bites on your mobile device.
We’ve already provided a list of useful sign language apps for Android users, and now it’s time to see what the App Store has for iOS users who want to learn how to sign.
Keep in mind that sign language is very complicated and operates with different syntax than oral languages. There are dedicated developers who are trying to create a real-time sign language translation app that will hopefully smooth out communications between oral and sign language. But since we do not currently have such an app, some things will be lost in translation.
If at all possible, practice the language with someone who signs fluently, and allow these iOS apps to supplement your education. Though we are aware that sign language is not universal, the market is heavily skewed towards American Sign Language (ASL), and good apps for non-ASL signing are somewhat hard to find. If you know of any good apps for other languages, please let us know in the comments section.
ASL Coach (Free, Pro for $0.99)
Best for: Basic ASL alphabet.
This free app is as simple as it comes, and perfect for the sign language beginner. It teaches you the basic ASL alphabet in its free form with a pro version available for cheap.
There is also the titular Coach that shows you how to fingerspell words at your request. It’s very rudimentary, but it can be helpful for learning the basics and translating unfamiliar words on the fly.
Best for: Language immersion via the keyboard.
If you want to immerse yourself in the language, one sure way to do that is to use Signily, a paid ASL keyboard app. This allows you to add another keyboard to your iOS device that shows you the signs for each letter in place of the actual letter.
It’s not the most intuitive way of learning how to sign since it can rob you of the chance to learn word-specific signs instead of fingerspelling, but what makes this app helpful is that all of the signs are laid out in familiar patterns, and they go back to Roman letters with one touch. By switching between the two, you can more easily memorize the individual letters.
ASL Dictionary ($4.99)
Best for: All-purpose reference.
It may not be the most intuitive app ever designed, but the ASL Dictionary paid app is straightforward and helpful. It has a dictionary of words and phrases that can be signed, and when you click on an entry, you will see a video clip of the sign in question.
If what you need is a reference for signs, then ASL Dictionary is a great piece of supplementary software. It will teach you nothing about grammar or sentence structure, and the interface can be a little ugly, but that’s easy to overlook. There is also a quiz mode that tests you based on the videos, but this is rendered somewhat superfluous by the fact that the signers usually mouth the words while signing them.
Marlee Signs (Free, In-App Purchases)
Best for: Basic visual learning.
Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin has an iOS app that we’ve recommended before, in which she signs out the ASL alphabet, as well as commonplace phrases such as “Hello,” “Excuse me,” and “I am deaf.” It’s very useful for those just starting out, who want quick access to the basics from an experienced teacher.
Matlin signs very slowly, but the app allows you to play the short educational gifs back even more slowly, which is useful for the less-dexterous student (and complete beginners). The only downside is that this is a freemium app, and all except the most basic phrases are obtained via in-app purchases.
The ASL App (Free, In-App Purchases)
Best for: Understanding more complex interactions in ASL.
This app is the closest I’ve found to a Duolingo for ASL. It has different modules for different topics and is very easy to use. In addition to showing people signing the phrases in each module, they sometimes show two ASL speakers interacting to simulate conversational topics, which really sets this app apart.
Some of the sign modules are free, but many must be purchased within the app. If you have the money to spend, this can be a very helpful tool for learning ASL.
PCS Sign Language Flash Card ($0.99)
Best for: Memorization.
Flash cards are a proven method of learning, even on mobile apps. So if you want to use a visual medium to hone your ASL skills, or you want to quiz another person, this can be helpful. While there is a free version of this app, the paid version is much more extensive and helpful.
One downside of the cards is that they are not animated, which makes it difficult to know if you’re doing to appropriate motions for some signs. Also, while you can select which of the cards you want to see in a certain set, they are always presented in alphabetical order, making random quizzing difficult.
Best for: Those who want to learn the basics of a non-ASL language.
This is one of the rare apps that is useful for those wanting to learn another sign language. In stark contrast to ASL, British Sign Language uses two hands in fingerspelling, meaning that it can be a little trickier to practice while holding a phone.
This BSL app lacks the coaching feature of the Coach app above, meaning that a user will have no assistance in learning. But if all you need is a dictionary that for BSL fingerspelling, this app will fill a neglected niche.
What apps have used to learn sign language? Are there any good ones that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below!