Listen and Hear. What’s the difference in meaning?

The verbs listen and hear can be confusing for English learners. In this video we learn how English speakers use them and fix some common mistakes.
These verbs can be confusing. They have similar meanings but we use them in different ways so in this lesson you’ll learn how to use them correctly.
Let’s start with hear. When our ears pick up sounds, we hear.

If the number dialed is busy, you will hear the familiar busy signal.

Hearing is an unconscious act. We don’t think about it or want to do it. It just happens when there are sounds. Listening is different because it’s intentional – we decide to pay attention and listen.

Remember, before dialing, listen for dial tone.

So listening is intentional, but hearing happens naturally whether we’re paying attention or not. If we don’t hear something it’s because the sound isn’t reaching our ears.

Can you speak up? I can’t hear you very well

And when we ask someone to listen, we’re asking them to pay attention.

Now listen.
Really?
Let me tell you my plans, and listen with both ears. I have an idea….

We’re looking at listen and hear, but there are similar differences between look and see. Look is intentional and see is not. I’ve made another video about that. Follow this link to watch it.
So here’s a question. Is it possible to listen, but not hear? Well, yes. It happens if we’re paying attention but the sounds aren’t reaching our ears.

[Whispering]
I beg your pardon. I’m sorry but I didn’t quite hear.
I said I’m not really having a spell.

And another question. Is it possible to hear but not listen? Yes. You can still hear sounds when you’re not paying attention.

This proposal looks interesting.
Yeah, we should arrange to meet these people.
OK.
What do you think Jay? Jay?
Oh, sure.
Do you want me to organize it then?
Yes please. What day works best for you?
Thursday.
OK. Thursday. And Thursday for you too Jay? Jay? Are you listening?
Oh sure, I heard you. I’m thirsty too.

So when we listen we pay attention. If we hear the radio, it’s on and it’s background noise. But if we listen to the radio, we’re paying attention to it. We also use hear when we’re talking about things we’ve learnt or been told about.

Have you heard from Jason?
Yeah, he just texted me. He’s going to be late.

So we’ll often use hear when we’re talking about news.

Hey, have you heard? We might get bonuses this year.
Really?
Yeah, the head office is talking about it.
Oh, great!

Listen is a regular verb. Hear is irregular, but it’s only the spelling that’s irregular because it ends in -D, not -ED. The pronunciation is hear, heard, heard.
We can listen. Or we can listen to something. So we listen to people, we listen to the radio and we listen to music. But notice we can’t listen something so these sentences are wrong. We can’t listen music. We ‘listen to’ music.

Didn’t you hear me knocking?
No, I was listening to some music.

So don’t forget to use ‘to’ here. Listen to music. Remember that.
Now ‘hear’. Hear is special kind of verb because it’s a sense verb. I’ve made another video about sense verbs and I’ll put a link here for you to check out. The important thing to note is we don’t usually use hear in the progressive or continuous form. Instead we often use it with ‘can’ so we say can or can’t hear.

I saw Thompkins this afternoon.
If you want to talk to me, come into the kitchen.
I can’t hear you when you’re in there and I can’t leave the food.
All right. All right.

Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?

Hey! You’re acting mighty suspicious.
Eh?
Yes, you.
Hey?
Don’t give me that. You can hear.
Yes, I’ll have another beer.

Have a look at these sentences. Which one is wrong? We can listen, or we can listen to someone or something, but we can’t listen something. This is wrong. Listen is often followed by ‘to’.
OK, now what about these ones? This one is correct. To talk about activities in progress, we use ‘listen to’. But notice this. To talk about the result of the listening, we could use ‘hear’. Now that means there are just a few situations where ‘hear’ has a very similar meaning to ‘listen to’.

I heard a really interesting story on the news this morning about computer games.
Oh, I listened to that too. Some of them have viruses that can bring the network down.
Uhuh.

In this situation we could switch the verbs around and it would still be correct. So why is this? It’s because the focus is on WHAT we heard – the result of the listening and the hearing.
Now if that was hard – don’t worry. It’s a very unusual example because normally the meanings are quite different. Listening is intentional and hearing is not. Follow that rule and you can’t go wrong. Let’s finish with one more example.

What are you doing?
Shhh. Kathy’s on the phone with the head office.
Really?
Yeah, she’s talking about our bonuses.
Ooo. What’s she saying? I
really can’t hear very well.
Give me that.
But I want it.
No, let me listen.
[Kathy clears throat] What are you doing?
Oh, this is Jay’s.

5 thoughts on “Listen and Hear. What’s the difference in meaning?

  • December 5, 2016 at 7:26 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks,I didn’ t hear this difference by now is clear.I start to learn in english

    Reply
  • December 6, 2016 at 6:42 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks,I didn’ t hear that difference by now is clear.I start to learn in english,but a need listen other native speakers.

    Reply
  • February 7, 2017 at 11:52 pm
    Permalink

    Perfectly explained and very funny! 🙂 Thanks.

    Reply
    • February 17, 2017 at 4:15 am
      Permalink

      Thanks Hanka!

      Reply
    • March 10, 2017 at 12:04 pm
      Permalink

      Delighted you like it Hanka. Thanks for writing.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.