Learning a language is a lot easier when you have an app to help you out, and sign language is no different. For the most part, these apps focus on American Sign Language (ASL), but some of them support other languages (because sign language is not universal).
And you don’t have to be D/deaf or Hard of Hearing to learn sign language! Even knowing just a few key words or phrases can be extremely useful for when you run into people whose main method of communication is sign language.
Unfortunately, there are far fewer apps available for sign language than there are for spoken languages. There’s nothing of the Duolingo or Google Translate level here, but we’ll work with what we’ve got.
First: A Note on Learning Sign Language
Right off the bat, we should address the fact that learning ASL or any other sign language is best done in-person through classes or real-life interactions with Deaf people. Apps are fine for vocabulary, but they won’t be able to give you all of the context, concepts, and grammar that real life instruction would.
But as long as you’re aware of the limitations here, let’s dive in.
ASL American Sign Language
This app stands out because it offers flashcards and quizzes, but it’s not perfect. Full-screen ads appear far too often, and the design is dated and unattractive.
Still, it’s the most interactive of all the apps, with a large range of content. Most other ASL apps tend to just be a list of things with no format for studying them. At least here, you can take quizzes and then go back and practice the ones you missed, or try your hand at flashcards.
Best for: Flashcards, quizzes.
Any Irish folks out there? Then this app is for you because it teaches Irish Sign Language instead of ASL.
There’s no great method for studying what’s in here, unfortunately. There’s simply a list of numbers, a list of letters, and then categories you can click through to see short videos of people signing the words.
The design is relatively modern, the videos are clear and load quickly, and there are no ads. Think of it as a pocket ISL dictionary.
Best for: Irish Sign Language
Download: ISL Everywhere (Free) on the Play Store [No longer available]
Sign Language: ASL Kids
If you have a child who’s d/Deaf/HoH or has a friend who is, ASL can be an invaluable resource for them. This app was designed with kids in mind and combined with a parental control app, you can leave your Android device with your kiddo for as long as you want.
The app has a simple interface based on taps and swipes that children should find easy and intuitive. Its library isn’t huge, since it’s focused on just teaching the basics, but it does that well. Plus, there are no ads or in-app purchases for your child to click.
Best for: Children
We might be a way away from an accurate, real-time sign language translator, but this app certainly tries its best. Type in any phrase, and the animated man will sign it for you.
The app is designed mainly for Portuguese Sign Language, but it supports ASL in beta as well. Sadly, many reviewers have stated that due to the beta status of the English side, the translations can be awkward or clunky.
You can slow down the animated signing to make it easier to imitate, and you can even download the dictionary offline in case you find yourself without Internet.
Best for: Portuguese, animated demonstrations
This app is as barebones as they come. Type in a word or phrase, and it returns videos of people signing that word or phrase.
There’s only a tiny banner ad along the bottom, and each word usually has multiple video results so you can see multiple pronunciations of the same word.
Best for: Videos of real people signing
Download: Sign ASL (Free) on the Play Store
While this app is free, most of its best features are hidden behind a $5 in-app purchase. Without the in-app purchase, it functions similarly to Sign ASL, acting as a searchable video dictionary. If you spring for the in-app purchase, though, you can delve into the alphabet, favorite words, and access a section designed for children.
The main reason you might want to pay up, though, is for the ability to slow down videos of real people signing to 25, 50, or 75 percent of their true speed. This could make the signs much easier to imitate.
The good news is that even in the free version, Spread Signs offers translations in a huge number of different sign languages, ranging from English to Swedish to Indian.
Best for: Multiple languages, slowed-down videos of real people signing
Download: Spread Signs (Free) on the Play Store
What Do You Think?
To be honest, a majority of the apps for learning sign language in the Play Store could be much better. They’re riddled with full-screen ads, their instructions aren’t clear, they’re just poorly designed, or they don’t even work at all.
In particular, avoid “popular” apps like ASL American Sign Language, the other ASL American Sign Language, American Sign Language ASL, Learn Sign Language Wiki Guide, and Sign Language for Beginners. Even paid apps like the $4.99 ASL Dictionary are awful.
Hopefully in the future we can see more advanced sign language apps — maybe something like WeSpeke, which could pair up sign language users and those trying to learn.
If you’re learning ASL or another sign language right now, how are you going about it? Any apps or websites you would recommend? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: using sign language by Monika Wisniewska via Shutterstock