ASL Resources for Hearing Students

[Pre-video intro: When you’re starting out as a hearing person learning ASL, there is a wealth of info available but it can be hard to sift through it all and find the most helpful. Sure, loads of people get into Switched at Birth and new signers love This Close, but picking up a few signs from shows is not the same as having resources that are pedagogically sound, meaning they’ll actually help you learn and retain material. The rest is up to you. You’ll have to practise and review regularly, or it’s not going to stick.

I’m a <cough> mature learner which means I have to do way more review than my 20- and 30-something classmates. Unlike some of them, my hearing is not imminently disappearing, although it was checked and determined to have some loss on top my Ménières disease, tinnitus and hyperacusis. I use captions and find I’m needing them more and more. But even those in my classes who are hard of hearing or have CIs or hearing aids need to do the homework, review and look for additional resources.]

Video on YouTube on my Reel Words | No More Craptions! channel. Images included in the video are not reproduced here.

[Video transcript: I’ve spent the last year exploring some ASL learning resources and would like to share my impressions. I’m not endorsing any, just giving my personal reactions as a hearing learner. I also am not saying they are all correct or perfect; be aware that like any language, there are regionalisms to sign language, even within one (like ASL), and as a newbie I am no expert. I’ll talk about apps, websites, books and meetings.

One caveat though: BSL is VERY different from ASL, so watch the source of resources. I can’t understand BSL, but I do watch films on BSL Zone as part of cultural studies, though.

Start with finding a class offered by a local association or approved, certified course. As someone pointed out to me, you never want to learn from a hearing person, just as it’s best not to learn any other language from someone who doesn’t have it as their mother tongue. I’m in my third level of one at the same place of instruction, where the curriculum is Signing Naturally by Dawn Sign Press.

Signing Naturally is a course widely used in classroom settings, and it uses multiple learning styles. The workbook includes CDs which cover learning material, vocab review and extensive supplementary material, such as elements of storytelling, which is particularly important to Deaf culture.

I like the fact that even in parts published 10 years ago, it’s LGBTQ friendly, it includes racial diversity in its actor casting, and the material is usable and real: no "See Spot run" equivalents. The stuff I learn is what I actually need when I interact in Deaf social situations (more on that later). I haven’t seen any disability diversity, ironically*, in the casting, but I’m only partway through Book 2, so perhaps that comes up later. The second book is better in that vocab review is appended to the end of each lesson rather than each unit, which is easier to study with. It uses photos of the actors with superimposed directional arrows and other non-manual markers, and these are clearly visible in the videos. Vocabulary is presented in a non-glossed way, which is in keeping with ASL pedagogy, so that you aren’t looking up word-for-word equivalents. This may seem like a drawback to newbies, but trust me, it makes perfect sense once you as a hearing student get going and learn more about the language and culture. So, with no traditional vocab lists, I have a lot of paper clips and stickies for stuff I need to review more often. The only problem with the curriculum I have encountered is that the textbook needs copy editing and a professionally produced index, and I don’t say that as an editor/indexer (which I am) but because I find it hard to access some information as a student.

Another wonderful part of the course is their inclusion of profiles of prominent Deaf people and reproductions of art by Deaf artists. Both are key to broadening the hearing person’s learning about Deaf culture. They also discuss communication and etiquette, which is also invaluable.

Finally, the course has a website with corresponding video libraries, so if I’m not home, I can practice some vocab, for instance, while I have some time to kill. It only has a one-month free trial before you have to pay around $15US for access to the videos, but once you’ve paid, you have access for good: so while I am now in the video library for Book 2, I still have access to those for Book 1, which helps me review. Also, I was having trouble loading videos on my iPhone’s default Safari, but they advised me to try accessing via Chrome on my phone, which worked, and I appreciated the quick and useful customer service.

I can’t comment on other curriculums. I did ask for access to a review copy of one of the “Green Books” by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely out of Gallaudet University but didn’t hear back. I got the impression they are used for more “serious” students of ASL, such as those going through for eventual training in ASL interpretation at the post-secondary level, rather than Signing Naturally, which seems more directed at non-professional goals, although Dawn Sign Press does also offer the Effective Interpreting Series by Carol J. Patrie, for professional ends.

Another curriculum option for the determined and self-disciplined student is Lifeprint or “ASLU” by Dr. Bill Vicars, available online for free (incredibly), although course completion can only be recognized by certified schools using it. This was started, it seems, as a labour of love by Dr. Bill and is well known as a great resource, both as a course and for its dictionary functions. His classes are posted online to follow along with the online lesson plans, and he has seemingly endless video resources which have been updated over the years. He does have a Donate button, there is a separate site for fingerspelling practice, and he and his wife, Belinda G. Vicars, are indefatigable admins for a lively, helpful and engaging Facebook page.

I use Lifeprint for the weeks between my course’s terms. I learn extra signs and information, and I reinforce what I have learned. You can learn more about ASLU here and check out his homepage for the shocking number of resources available. His presentation of hand shape and non-manual markers suits my learning style to a T. Dr. Bill discusses similarities in signs, provides hyperlinked cross-references, and his sharing of nuances of Deaf culture are invaluable to hearing people. Considering he and Belinda are both faculty at California State U at Sacramento, they’re dedicated contributors to the free online fabric of ASL resources.

If you’re not looking for official learning yet and just want to dip your toe in the water, there are a gajillion resources online to let you check out ASL and see whether it’s something you might be prepared to commit to learning.

Who doesn’t love Marlee Matlin? She has an app called Marlee Signs—a tiny bit outdated IMHO. (Am I a horrible person for saying that?) There’s competition in app world, and I’m afraid this one didn’t keep me using it. Like many, it comes with a basic starter pack and adds others for about $2–3. It also has a Baby Signs package. Who knows? Maybe it’s right up your alley. Definitely worth a look.

A definitely sexier and hipper app is, appropriately, The ASL App by Ink and Salt LLC. Lots of people are drawn to it as a starting point for good reason. Aside from including people well known in both the Deaf and hearing cultures, such as Nyle DiMarco, the app comes with about 6 free packs or $9.99US will get you everything, including updates. I snapped it up. The reason this is so useful is that it includes truly useful content. Although my curriculum teaches beer and wine, it doesn’t include how to sign wasted, selfie or stalker, for instance, or a bunch of social media terms that come up in real conversation. It’s great for current colloquialisms to get you by, but a dictionary resource or course it is not.

They also have ASL with Carebears, Speak2Sign (which looks like a B2B training resource) and the ever-fun Nyle’s Stickers for iMessaging, which gives good bang for the $1.39. The thumbnail for the latter is a cartoon, but the app is augmented video: it’s even better than it looks. I’d love to see it available for Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram, too. They created Cardzilla, too, discussed later. You can learn more on their various social media platforms also.

I suck at fingerspelling (doing and reading), so I needed an app! I like Spell by Wit Dot Media. Word lengths and speeds increase with success, and what is very helpful to me is that the hand shapes change direction: you will not always be signing with someone dead-centre to you, so you have to learn to recognize fingerspelling from different angles. The app is clear and simple.

I’m not great at some numbers, either, such as ordinals, ages, or year dates, and I’ve included a...  decent info from 1 to 100 at

I and a bunch of other people were looking for an app from which you could insert handshapes for alphabet letters into various social media, so Signily looked promising. Save your $1.39. It doesn’t work, even when you allow its access on your phone’s keyboard options as per their troubleshooting. We’re all ticked! If you know of another one that works, please share!

I hate, hate, hate using the phone and, by extension, Skype, Zoom and Facetime. But a Deaf friend recommended the app Glide, which I confess I haven’t forced myself to use to contact her yet. It looks like they’re also developing CMRA, “the camera for Apple Watch,” fyi/if you’re into that sort of thing!

Speaking of chatting with Deaf folks, I attend social coffees where D/deaf, HoH and ASL-fluent hearing people go to chat/keep up their language skills, and they are very gracious about welcoming people like me with my kindergarten ASL. There, as in class, it’s “voice off,” meaning you don’t speak vocally both as a courtesy and to encourage language development. But there are times when you just don’t have the sign vocab and can’t fingerspell an entire paragraph or question, so people often use their phones to type out messages. The ASL App folks created Cardzilla, which is insanely useful in its simplicity. Instead of opening Notes and getting tiny print, it starts out with really large letters (which even I don’t need my glasses for) and conversation is easily passed back and forth. With swipes you can see your history, faves, share via Airdrop, shake to clear, and it will resize automatically if you want a long text extract to fit on one screen. Love it. Apply your saved Signily $1.39 to buying Cardzilla!

Another godsend in the reference line is Signing Savvy. There are soooo many resources available, but this seems to be a very reliable one. I’ve even seen my teachers check a few things on it. They have a good website, which is perhaps best known for the Word of the Day that is available on social media and/or daily email notifications. With each WOTD is a corresponding sentence using it in context, again with real-life sentences, not stupid examples. The BEST part of SS, like The ASL App, is the turtle function! You can slow the video down and watch it slowly for as many times as you need to, until you can parse and reproduce the sign! It can be set to as slow as ¼ speed or as fast as 2x, and you can print out the frames. There is a personal dictionary function you can create, the videos can be enlarged, there are variations presented, they have hand shape/NMM/facial grammar/movement descriptions (my greatest requirement) and a memory aid (ditto). Generally there is the same guy doing the WOTD and the same woman doing the sentences, so you aren’t distracted by changing presenters and individualisms. It’s consistent and the dictionary search function is excellent. The catch? The online free version is okay, but all these features are available and augmented by paying for a subscription. I saved 64% by signing up for a 3-year subscription for $129.95 US ($167CAN) which sounds like a lot but works out to 15 cents/day! Getting the membership and extra functions (I’ve only mentioned a few) was a no-brainer. I note they also have a new Chat service where you get 30 mins for $20US with a Deaf expert (credentials provided on the site), which is on par with tutoring fees where I live.

Finally, I want to cover an old-school resource: a bound and printed paper book: The Canadian Dictionary of ASL by the University of Alberta Press. Now, before you roll your eyes, there are many advantages to using a nonscreen resource like a printed dictionary, including the ability to be fortuitously distracted by nearby information, rather than having to search intentionally for it electronically. This 840-page book has over 8700 signs relevant to ASL—as it is used in Canada. This is hugely important because, just as no language course can cover all regionalisms, my textbook often presents American signs that we then have to unlearn and then learn the Canadian version.

The dictionary, by Carole Sue Bailey and Kathy Dolby, is well laid out. For instance, the front endpapers give quick access to alphabet and numbers, while the back ones review basic handshapes (not the same as letters; these are some of the building blocks of signing). The extensive front matter includes almost a hundred pages on numbers, time concepts, geographical place names and pronouns, before the entries proper begin. Line drawings are clean and clear, and even fingerspelled entries are presented. Like any good dictionary, different meanings get their own entries but I like that even these have discrete presentations, so a verb and an adjective are clearly divided for instance. Same-signs, alternates, and discrete cultural applications are often given. So signs for pee (sorry, that’s just what I flipped to!) are divided into general, women’s/girls’, men’s/boys’ and animals’ entries! This is a rich language!

But I wondered, having been published in 2002, how up to date it was, so I decided to look for some newer words. Internet is in there. So is email and spreadsheet. Even the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (English language) 2nd ed. is as old as 2006, and with the internet, language changes too quickly to afford updates in Canadian [word lists] in our publishing climate.

What’s important is that I can look up toque, Saskatoon, parliament, toonie, and slow—both the Atlantic and more westerly signs for it!

I hope the opinions about these resources help. If you know of other excellent ones, feel free to share on Twitter, Facebook and my website. I’m generally searchable as Reel Words Subtitle and Caption Editing.


2021 Edit

I've been apprised of a few other resources for people who have experienced hearing loss. These are American and I have no affiliation or experience with them, but they may be useful for some readers, especially seniors:


* NB: I do not subscribe to the medical model of deafness, so my comment about a video not having disability diversity is not about "being handicapped" but rather that the Deaf community encourages Deaf talent, and I thought this awareness might extend to using actors with additional accessibility barriers to being hired in acting.