Because American Sign Language (ASL) is a three-dimensional, visual-gestural language, there is no substitution for learning via an in-person method (class, tutoring, immersion in the Deaf community). However, if this is not an option for you, because of health, finance, or other reasons, two-dimensional resources are going to have to be the way to go. Twenty years ago, a person learning ASL had little more options for learning sign vocabulary than what they could find in a bookstore or library. But now, with the world wide web available at your fingertips, more choices are popping up every day.
If you’re like most ASL wanna-bes, you’re hoping to start with a basic sign vocabulary base and move on from there. Although there may be a dozen or more sites that are dedicated to featuring a dictionary of video footage of thousands of signs, today I want to focus on the four best-known sources.
Provided through Michigan State University, this site, created in 1997, allows you to search for thousands of ASL signs. This site requires a modern browser with QuickTime plug-ins. I found this dictionary to be one of, if not THE, best available online. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it does come from Michigan, and so some signs that are different in Michigan may not apply to what’s used in other states (just as a dictionary from the west side of the country will more likely feature sign variations that are more readily recognized in that area). For example, Michigan’s sign for TRASH is what most other states use for METAL. Also, Michigan’s sign for METAL is what most states use for GLASS. Another example is that Michigan’s sign for OUTSIDE is what is known in most other places as BOSS. Confusing? Not if you live in Michigan. On this particular site, the signs they show for TRASH and METAL reflect the Michigan variations, whereas the sign for OUTSIDE resembles the nationally recognized sign.
This is another Michigan-based ASL dictionary. It includes quite a bit of finger spelling, along with “over 5,000 signs and phrases.” Signing Savvy is relatively new (created in January of 2009) and the above discussed ASL BROWSER states that it is “similar to the ASL Browser, however, it is a newer web site that has a larger vocabulary, higher resolution videos, and several other capabilities such as the ability to search for signs, print signs, and build word lists.” I personally disagree. I’ve found that many of the signs they show are more English-based and some of their variations are not readily used in the Deaf community. Having said that, there are definitely good points to the site. The best thing about this site is that it includes signs that aren’t found on the other three sites, including slang and “mature” words. One downside though is that the words and the actual video footage of the signs are on two separate pages, so you have to keep going back and forth. As to whether it shows the Michigan variations of signs (since it is Michigan-based), for all three example words (TRASH, METAL, and OUTSIDE), it showed only the Michigan versions. That’s not saying that you must live in Michigan to use this dictionary though. Just be sure to counter-reference your results.
In my experience as a sign language teacher, I’ve found that, when a student comes to class with a sign question or when I teach a sign and a student says s/he learned a different “version,” it’s a result of using this online dictionary. Based in Texas, and using both hearing and deaf sign models, this dictionary is my least favorite of the four being discussed today. The sign models vary in degree of skill and experience, including two children, ages 10 and 14, but they make no mention of whether they’re deaf or hearing. Also to be duly noted is that many models show no facial expressions whatsoever (and, in many cases, facial expressions are just as important to the sign as the sign itself). If I were consulted by a student who’s starting to learn vocabulary through online sources, I would not recommend going to this site. In addition, if you do use this site, I strongly advise using it only after searching elsewhere. Having said that, it isn’t totally “evil” and this site may be used as an additional resource.
Sometimes referred to as “Lifeprint” by site visitors because of the URL, often times this site is overlooked for its dictionary uses. ASLU was created by a hard of hearing, full-time instructor of ASL/Deaf Studies at California State University, Sacramento, named William “Dr. Bill” Vicars, Ed.D. Along with ASL Browser, this is another site I highly recommend, especially if you’re wanting to learn American Sign Language signs rather than English variations (although often Dr. Bill gives English variations alongside the ASL demo). One of the best things is that, along with the pictures and videos, this dictionary provides information about the uses of each sign in a very easily-understandable written tone. It’s almost as if you’re right there in class with him. The only bad part about this site is that some of the signs only have a picture to go by and not an actual video. This is quickly being remedied however, as his site is constantly being updated.
As you do your online search for sign vocabulary, keep in mind that ASL is not a spoken language. Therefore, in the actual dictionaries of the four sites mentioned above, there is no audio. Also, all four dictionary resources are free, with Signing Savvy also offering a membership that provides more options for a nominal fee. In addition, if you're interested in learning more about ASL than just signs, ASLU offers free lessons along with an actual course that can transfer for credit. The course requires registration and payment.
Whether you’re just starting out or are trying to increase and improve your vocabulary skills, chances are you’ll find almost everything you need on these four sites. Always keep in mind, however, that, just like spoken languages, ASL is a living language that is continuously evolving. There are regional dialects and slang as well as different registers (casual versus formal, for example). Be sure to keep an open mind as you’re learning. There is no one specific and only way to sign a concept. Just as in English, where you can vary the way your thoughts are expressed, so, too, in ASL. With that in mind, enjoy your journey to this beautiful and inspiring language. You’re sure to find many treasures along the way.