Almost 10 years ago, I was working at a video rental store (which is miraculously still in business, for the record). One of my favorite customers was an older man who was deaf. Even though my sign language knowledge only stretched as far as the signs for "thank you" and "sorry," he didn't mind writing notes with me on a scrap of paper to figure out what movie he wanted to see that day. One of the last times I saw him, he taught me how to sign "Alabama," because that's where he was moving.
All these years later, I can better understand that it must be frustrating, even isolating, when those who can hear don't make the effort to learn even a little sign language to communicate with those who cannot. I can't imagine having to learn sign language, English and lip-reading for added levels of communication.
Over 450 million people around the world have some type of hearing disability, according to the World Health Organization. Last year, language-learning app Drops created a companion app called Scripts that teaches the American Sign Language way of spelling the English alphabet in just 5 minutes per day -- a perfect starter for people who want to learn ASL, but don't have the time or money for a formal, in-person course. The app teaches users the ASL fingerspelling alphabet sign by sign, through immersive lessons and games. English speakers may find this the simplest entry into the world of sign language.
"We believe it's important to normalize sign language alphabets in the context of other mainstream alphabets, and that's why we decided to add ASL," said Daniel Farkas, CEO of Drops.
Just another language to learn
To date, Drops' family of language learning apps is the only one to include ASL along with other spoken and written languages. The suite of apps is available for iOS and Android. Drops has a fun, colorful, user-friendly layout that makes the prospect of learning a new language less intimidating.
Prior to adding this nod to ASL, Drops included lesser-studied languages like Ainu, an indigenous Japanese language.
"Too often we've seen 'niche or nontraditional' languages siloed into separate learning systems, and they're at risk of disappearing forever," Farkas said. "It is important for Drops to not only offer these languages but to have them available alongside the most popular and widely spoken languages in the world and preserve them for our future generations."
Drops approaches language learning like a game, with matching, swiping and a time element if you're competitive. For ASL, Scripts breaks the fingerspelling alphabet into two lessons -- A-M and N-Z. Either can be accessed in the Topics tab in the app. In the Collection tab, you can view the full alphabet and see which letter you might need to spend more time on according to a corresponding comprehension bar. Similarly to Duolingo, the Scripts keeps track of your streak in the Profile tab. You can also tweak your settings here at any time.
I found it beneficial to practice the letters in real life alongside the app, which helped my fingers' muscle memory. The repetition in a 15-minute lesson helped me better understand the difference between signs that looked similar. For example, it helped me to better distinguish between A, E, M and S -- all are in a fist shape, but finger placements separate one letter from another.
In the past, I had tried to learn some ASL through YouTube videos. But my experience using Scripts was much more successful. Even though I had timed sessions enabled, I didn't feel rushed. I was even more surprised that I'd retained most of the alphabet I learned when I did a session the next day.
You can use Scripts for free, but you have to wait 10 hours in between lessons unless you subscribe to a premium Drops membership for $10 a month. (Since Drops doesn't include ASL beyond the signs for the English alphabet, signing up for this wouldn't make a lot of sense unless you were interested in using it for other languages.) Drops also offers a bundle deal with a lifetime subscription for a one-time $160 payment. With both the free and paid plans, you can check out your statistics after completing the lesson (correct answers, wrong answers and words or, in this case, letters learned) and tap on the words you've learned to hear them pronounced again. This can give you a leg up when your next lesson starts.
"Drops has taken a very small step to address a much larger problem -- access to universal and accessible education for all -- and is committed to working with institutions like Gallaudet University to do our part to normalize and preserve ASL as an important educational tool and communication method," Farkas said.
Scripts only teaches the ASL fingerspelling alphabet, and there aren't any immediate plans to add ASL to the main Drops app. If you want to further your ASL education with phrases and vocabulary, the ASL app, Start ASL, and SignASL.org are good resources to check out.