Learn ASL with Marlee Matlin on your iPhone

by Lisa Caplan

Youngest recipient of an Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God, deaf actress Marlee Matlin teamed up with MEDL Mobile to release Marlee Signs. It’s an ASL tutorial app for iPhone that uses video starring Ms. Matlin herself to teach the basics of American Sign Language to newcomers. While there are other ASL apps available, they generally rely on static images and not interactive. While Ms. Matlin herself greets us with a caveat that her app can’t replace a proper ASL classroom, it’s the closest you’re going to get to one in the App Store.

Marlee Signs has six chapters. The first is called You, and it comes free with the download and uses high-quality video to teach you the alphabet, numbers and some elementary signs. The other five lesson packs: Around You, Home, Around Town, Around World, and Baby Signs are available as in-app purchases for $1.99 each.

Each lesson features a video where Ms. Matlin demonstrates a sign with a caption on the bottom of the screen. You can pause, rewind, and even slow down playback with gestures. A tap on the video toggles the control menu.

What’s really innovative in Marlee Signs is the Spell section. ASL, of course, has specific signs for words and phrases, but the language also uses spelling for proper nouns and unfamiliar words. Here you can type in a word or phrase and watch Marlee spell it out with fluent and fluid fingers.

Marlee Signs was just updated to address some early hiccups, one of which was that not all videos were scaled for the iPhone 5’s four-inch display. To remedy this the developers encased all the videos in very small panes. The app only works in portrait orientation and the result is that there is a lot of unused screen real estate, even on devices with 3.5-inch displays. On iPhone 5 the captions were just below my field of vision, which is awkward.

Also, if you chose to “play all” the videos in a lesson at once (i.e. if you want to see the entire alphabet rather than the letters one at a time), the app stitches individual videos together very poorly. Played at normal speed the screen appears to flicker, making it hard to watch for more than a few seconds without getting a headache.

Beyond that, Marlee Signs is inviting, easy to use, and powered by Ms. Matlin’s charm. If you want to learn ASL, this is a great way to start.

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