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Hear vs. Listen

Ask a Teacher: Hear vs. Listen
Ask a Teacher: Hear vs. Listen
Hear vs. Listen
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Hi there! This week on Ask a Teacher, we will answer a question about the difference between “listen” and “hear.”



My name is Waleed. And I am from Egypt. I would like to ask about the difference between "hear" and "listen.”

Thanks in advance,



Thanks for writing to us, Waleed.

This is an excellent question. Both words have to do with sounds and our ears, but they do not mean the same thing. Let’s look at each.


“Hear” is a verb that can either take a direct object or not. It has several meanings. First, in its simplest form, the word means to receive sound through the ear.

Every few hours I hear the whistle of the train.

FILE - Steam locomotive on the Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia (Photo by Faith Pirlo)
FILE - Steam locomotive on the Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia (Photo by Faith Pirlo)

“Hear” can mean to get information or knowledge by hearing something.

I hear that we need to clean out our offices soon!

“Hear” also means to receive communication from someone.

Nathan has not heard from his mother in a while. He needs to call her.

“Hear” can share a meaning with the word “listen.” To say you “hear” someone means that you listened to them with attention.

I hear your side of the story, but I do not agree.

Let’s move on to “listen.”


Just like the last meaning we gave for “hear,” “listen” means to hear with attention and understanding. We often use the preposition “to” with it.

It is difficult to listen to my teacher for a long time.

“Listen” can mean paying attention to sounds or being alert enough to catch and understand sounds.

Maria listens to a lot of different kinds of music.

My cat listens for the sound of the can-opener to know when it is dinner time.

Siamese cat waiting for dinner (Photo by Faith Pirlo)
Siamese cat waiting for dinner (Photo by Faith Pirlo)

And when speaking informally, “listen” can be a noun meaning the act of listening itself.

Give this a listen! It’s Carly Rae Jepsen’s new song.

The biggest difference between “hearing” something and “listening” to something is the amount of attention given to the process. “Hearing” is what we usually call a passive activity, sounds are coming into your ear, you receive them, but you are not necessarily paying attention to them. “Listening” suggests an active effort that requires attention.

Please let us know if these explanations and examples have helped you, Waleed.

Do you have a question about American English? Send us an email at

And that’s Ask a Teacher.

I’m Faith Pirlo.

Faith Pirlo wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

whistle – v. to make a high sound by forcing air through a small hole in the mouth

passive adj. the quality of not being active or not taking action and letting things happen

active adj. the quality of taking action or being the agent of some effort or activity


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