A Keyboard App For Sign Language

Being able to text in hand signs means that the nuance of ASL isn't lost in translation.

Signily is a new mobile keyboard app for sending texts and emails in American Sign Language, which means signers can finally communicate over mobile with the nuance and texture of ASL, not just written English.

"In the recent times, the signing community would use Instagram, Vine or SnapChat to express thoughts in ASL and Glide to send video-texts instead of typing in English through any SMS-based messenger," Suzanne Stecker, product lead for Signily told BuzzFeed News. But communicating over video has obvious limitations – you can't hold the phone when you're signing with both hands, and you don't want to do it with bedhead or in your pajamas. "For a long time, the signing community has craved for something like this," she said about the app.

Certain signs in ASL simply don't have a good English translation. Stecker gives this example:

"This sign, as often used by the younger generation, comes in several meanings depending on the context: high-caliber person either in a positive or negative light," she explained.

There are also some communication nuances other than words themselves that are unique. For example, when hearing English speakers are scrambling for our next thought or pausing we say "hmmm" or "ummm", but in ASL that's expressed through a wiggling hand like this:

Another thing signers will do that doesn't translate in written words are a few methods of pumping their creative juices before signing:

Internet abbreviations have influenced fingerspelling. For example, "LOL" is:

Or in GIF form:

The hand symbols that are part of unicode emoji are sometimes use to spell out certain signs. For example, the sign for "yes" could be ✊👊✊👊in emoji. In Signily, it will look like this GIF:

Traditional emoji is an opportunity for ASL speakers. A recent story in Wired described how a professor and the interim president of the Oregon Association of the Deaf are petitioning the Unicode Consortium (the organization that controls all emoji) to add basic signs like A-Z, 0-9 and "I love you". While adding those basic handshapes would be helpful for fingerspelling, Signily gives signers the ability to type in full words and phrases.

The app was created by the organization ASLized, whose mission is to translate educational materials and literature about American Sign Language from written English into ASL through videos of people signing. Signily is currently only available for Apple devices but will be available for Android soon.

View this video on YouTube



A previous version misspelled Ms. Stecker's last name.