Can Bright help you learn BSL without a class?
Bright BSL is unique not just among sign language apps, but language learning apps in general. It follows the Duolingo paradigm, while adding genuinely creative exercises to introduce you to the inner workings of sign language and Deaf culture.
The free trial has a surprisingly large amount of content — give it a go!
A few months ago, I started taking learning British Sign Language seriously.
Before that, I had done an online self-learning course, but quit halfway through, because it felt more like a dictionary than a conversation course. This year, I started taking a class at my university.
But I can’t help but wonder what other materials and resources exist out there, that can supplement my learning, or even give me a good foundation in the language.
You might be in a similar scenario, wanting to learn some sign, whether to communicate with someone you know, make new friends, or just learn a new language within a unique medium of communication. Perhaps you aren’t sure it’s for you, so you want to try it out, before committing more time and money to BSL.
I’ve got good news for you. Bright BSL might just be the Duolingo for British Sign Language — except better.
First of all, I’m obliged to remind you that there are many different sign languages in the world, and BSL is what’s generally used in the UK. There are also a lot of variation across regions, but what you’ll learn here will be understood in most places.
Let’s just jump to the conclusion: this is one of the best language apps I’ve ever tried.
It’s still recommended to take a class, but this might just be the next best thing. If you’re learning BSL but aren’t able to go to a class, or if you’d like to supplement your classroom learning, I wholeheartedly recommend you try this out. The only downside I can see is the price.
But if you want to learn more about why I think so, read on.
Disclaimer: I’m still very new to sign languages, and I’m judging this app based on my exposure so far and my experience of studying over a dozen spoken languages.
What does Bright BSL do?
Bright BSL is an app available on Android and iOS. It’s also available in your browser, if you make an account. However, it basically has the same interface as the mobile apps, which means it looks odd on a horizontal screen. The browser version also doesn’t support payments yet (at the time of writing).
Once you open the app, it’s basically like Duolingo.
First, you have your streak. Can’t learn without a streak, am I right?
The course is split into 20 topics (‘skills’ on Duolingo). Each row on the ‘tree’ consists of 2 topics, each containing around 6 lessons. It might not seem like a lot, but once you get into it, it does feel like you have a lot of content to absorb. At the end of it, you get a good foundation.
Each lesson contains demonstrations of signs, followed by a variety of questions, ranging from true or false questions and sign matching to glossing and translating.
(Glossing means you translate each sign into English one by one, rather than into a grammatically correct English sentence. This helps you understand the language’s structure.)
Unlike Duolingo, you have more freedom to skip ahead a little bit and do lessons on the next row, instead of being confined to one row at a time.
There is a paywall after the first few topics. But instead of blocking you completely, Bright still allows you to do the first lesson in each topic for free afterwards, which makes it ideal for you to try things out.
Ample general knowledge
Learning a sign language is different from learning a spoken language in several ways. One of them is that as a hearing person, you need to learn about the ways in which Deaf lifestyles differ from ours, and sign languages differ from spoken languages. It’s a different medium after all! It’s like trying to type on a computer…after writing longhand your whole life.
So you can’t be taught sign language the same way you’re taught a spoken language. You can’t just Duolingo it.
Bright BSL is not like Duolingo. On Duolingo, you go straight to the content, and consult grammar notes when you run into a roadblock in your lessons.
Bright takes the initiative to give you the information you need. Instead of starting with signs, certain lessons start with a (fake) chat window, which tells you basic and important things about sign language.
These include linguistic information like how signs work, and cultural information like how Deaf people use sign language.
Later on, these lessons include more grammar (yes, sign languages have grammar), such as how to modify a sign.
Guess from context
I remember my teacher saying some people naturally pick up sign language more easily than others.
My guess is that some people are better at inferring meanings from context than others.
Indeed, because sign language is visual, if you are able to guess what a sign means, you’re at a significant advantage. Signs are also not fixed; there is a lot of variation and improvisation in real-life usage, which you’ll have to adjust to.
Bright BSL encourages exactly this. From the very start, when teaching you signs that visually represent a thing, it asks you, “What do you think this sign means?” instead of telling you.
For example, at one point, it teaches you a series of signs for physical actions. This includes drinking from various containers, different sizes of sips, and eating an apple. These self-explanatory signs help you get into the mindset of a signer, and trains you to interpret what you see, instead of spoon-feeding you answers.
This is very important to any sign language user, but especially a beginner, because you’ll have to learn to live with ambiguity for a loooong time!
Sometimes, it makes you match two signs with their meanings, one of which you already know. This way, it teaches you a new signs, without directly telling you ‘this means this’. You use your logical mind, even just a little bit.
Later, when giving you entire sentences (more below), it often includes unknown signs, without any introduction. For example, by watching the video and reading the translation, you should be able to deduce which sign is ‘ball’.
This prepares you for the ambiguity and logical inference skills that you’ll need, when conversing in sign language.
From signs to sentences
I’ve tried quite a few websites and apps that claim to teach you sign language (before I ended up on a course).
I can tell you that one of the biggest gripes I had was that many of them were just dictionaries.
They give you different topics, and show you a bunch of signs related to that topic. (Kinda like Duolingo sometimes, actually.) There’s little to none on how to build a sentence from those signs. So I was left with the feeling of having a lot of tools but no way of using them.
Granted, in a lot of cases, you could just translate from English word for word.
Not in other cases, though. That’s what Bright BSL does so great. In each lesson, after teaching you two or three signs, it gives you a full sentence. In particular, usually a sentence that differs from English in its structure.
It’s true that the bulk of the work, when learning a sign language, is the vocabulary. There is no shared vocabulary between SL and English (unless you spell out a word), so you’ll have to painstakingly learn and retain each sign.
But it’s also incredibly important to make learners aware that this is a separate language. Because many learners don’t realise the differences between English and sign, it is incredibly helpful to expose us to them early on.
The approach of signs in context achieves both goals. It might help internalise the structure as well.
Even in the 4th skill (which is akin to the 4th lesson in a course), there are already more sentences than individual signs. This aspect puts the app above many other resources, even some classes.
Productive and receptive skills
One of the challenges of learning sign on your own is ‘listening’ aka receptive skills.
Because sign language is not written, the only way you can practise your receptive skill is through videos. However, if you watch native content, the best you can do is rewind 5 or 10 seconds on YouTube, in order to slow down and repeat. That isn’t ideal.
Bright BSL overcomes this problem by having conversations for you to read. They’re split into sentences, so that you can repeat or slow down each sentence individually, instead of 5-second intervals. You can move on only after you’ve understood a sentence, and go back and replay when necessary.
Later, you also get receptive tests, where you watch a short description, and answer some multiple-choice questions. There are also lessons focused on similar signs, such as ones that differ only by lip pattern, hand shape, or movement. I haven’t seen any app that does that!
My brain has been experiencing some very welcome challenges — who knows what else it has in store?
The missing part would be productive skills, aka ‘speaking’, which is obviously harder for an app like this to accomplish. But from what I’ve heard from the developers, they’re actively coming up with ideas to encourage users to sign!
Bright BSL Pricing and Other features
Here’s the bad part. I’ve never been a fan of subscription-based apps; I’d rather just buy it outright.
I wouldn’t call Bright BSL cheap: at £12.99 a month, it’s similar to the competitor Lingvano. How much you actually end up paying, of course, depends on how many months it takes you. Out there, there are lifetime access courses ranging from £15 to hundreds, but those are computer-only and don’t have the Duolingo-like game vibe of these apps.
There are obviously also in-person courses, which would cost more, but you can’t really compare the experiences.
The app has a free trial that gives you access to the first few units / topics, and subsequently one lesson per unit. Do note that some creative and effective exercises only appear in more advanced topics, which means they’re behind the paywall!
In addition to the main learning tree, Bright BSL also has a Sign Bank (basically a video database of the signs taught) and standalone exercises through quizzes and flash cards.
One more thing — did I mention I like the app’s design too?
Verdict: is Bright BSL worth the money?
I’d still insist that an in-person class is the best way to learn British Sign Language, especially after the foundational stage. It’s simply more comprehensive, covers the different skills, and more importantly, helps you build confidence in using the language in real life, and communicating with Deaf people in general.
However, if you feel like self-learning is the best way forwards for you (perhaps you can’t afford a class, don’t have the time, or live abroad etc.), I wholeheartedly recommend Bright BSL. It’s also a great complementary resource, if you are going to a class like me. Just try not to confuse the different regional signs you learn, if you are a beginner!
It’s not a huuuuge amount of content, but it will give you a solid foundation, especially with the equal focus on vocabulary and structure.
For £12.99 per month, you can probably get a lot out of it, and then you can stop once you get through the content.
Either way, give the free trial a try!
*Big thanks to Bright BSL for providing a trial of the full version for this review, and for talking me through their design process.