(Photo by Flickr user Bert Heymans, used under a Creative Commons license)
Melissa Malzkuhn and her two siblings — Matt and Megan — are third generation Deaf, so they grew up signing. They also grew up being asked “How can I learn American Sign Language?”
Granted, there are any number of courses out there, even four-year university degrees, in ASL. But the average person, someone looking to learn ASL to communicate with her relatives, friends, coworkers or even customers, might not have the time or resources to devote to such a pursuit. This user is looking for something fun, something easy and something intuitive.
So the Malzkuhns, along with lead engineer Tim Kettering (all four graduates of Gallaudet University), decided to create just that — a mobile app to share their native language with the surrounding world. The ASL App, as it’s called, launched in May 2015 to “make conversational ASL available, accessible and fun to learn/engage with for anyone.”
The ASL App is not a dictionary, of which the app store boasts many. Rather, The ASL App is interested in teaching its users how to execute a sign (it currently has a database of over 1,000 signs with more than 500 more in development) and then use it in a sentence.
As such, Melissa says the team put a lot of thought into how someone can best learn a language visually.
Short videos that showcase the signs are readily replayed, played in slow motion or added to your favorites for easy access. The interface of the app, for its part, is clean, simple and easy to navigate. “We want to keep it fun, real and easy,” Melissa said.
Another unique feature of the app, as opposed to YouTube tutorials where the teachers are often students themselves, is that the signers seen in the ASL App videos are all multigenerational deaf signers. Melissa explained that it’s important to the team to create a sense of authenticity and build trust with users.
For Melissa, Matt, Megan and Tim the app is still a passion project, done on the side of their full-time jobs. But they’ve been heartened by positive response to the concept — the team won the People’s Choice Award at the Media Rise Festival in D.C. in 2013, when the app was still very much in development. And since its launch in May, the app has seen over 250,000 downloads.
The app currently runs on a freemium model — basic packages of signs come with the app, and additional packages — like “life events” or “mood swings” are available for purchase. Melissa hinted to Technical.ly that the future may include more apps from this team, including one directed at teaching ASL to kids.
“For me, personally, this project is about creating connections,” Melissa told Technical.ly. It’s about creating and expanding the possibility for a “tangible, comfortable and conversational” rapport with the English-speaking world. She’s also hoping, though, that the efforts of a native Deaf team will inspire more Deaf young people to get involved in tech and app development.
There’s plenty of work to be done.