Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

“Listen” versus “hear”- what is the difference?

Have you ever heard native speakers break rules in their speaking?

Do you hear somebody say something in English and know that it’s not proper?

This is where there can be a huge discrepancy between the textbook and everyday conversation.

We’re going to look at why people break the rules, when it’s okay, and how to evaluate what may be going on.

The theme of today is word choice and BREAKING the rules.

Let’s look at a question about this that can help us to get into the explanation.

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Dear Teachers,

The examples you give here above are the same in almost every language I guess. What is confusing for us as ESL learners is you natives say “Let’s hear some examples “.

We don’t say “let’s hear examples now”, we say “let’s listen to some examples now. ”

Because listen is more of an action, and so this can be confusing. You are actively hearing, with intention.

You are focused and trying to understand or give thought when you are listening.”

So can you help us to understand this?

-Sun Club 2018

Looking At The Rules

This question is great because the listener is right and it shows that they are at an extremely high level to be thinking like this.

It seems to be a bit unusual that you might say “let’s hear” rather than “let’s listen to” because you are right that listen is more active.

This is a podcast going on in the background so it may feel a little more natural to say hear rather than listen–since we want to convey a friendly atmosphere.

This word choice may help as it doesn’t seem too much like class.

However, ultimately this is a “rule” that is often broken.

For example, we have talked about “I hear you” and that’s more about actively listening but we use it rather than “I’m listening to you.”

Sometimes it just feels right, and you go with it because it makes sense for the sake of continuing the English conversation.

Looking At Examples of This

Sometimes it can really help to look at examples.

This is especially true when it comes to breaking a rule so to speak because you need to see it in practice rather than just in a textbook.

Here are a couple of examples that really help to highlight this.

  • I heard a song that reminded me of you/I listened to a song that reminded me of you The first one sounds more like the person didn’t plan to hear this song or maybe it was on in the background of a coffee shop or something. “Listen to” definitely sounds like they found a specific song, perhaps BECAUSE it reminded them of you.
  • I don’t want to hear anymore excuses/I don’t want to listen to anymore excusesHear sounds more natural in this situation. Why do you think this is? Perhaps it’s just something the person is tired of so they aren’t actively listening–it’s just like background noise at this point.
  • I want to hear what he’s saying/I want to listen to what he’s sayingOh great, my favorite author is giving a speech. Sh, I want to hear what he’s saying./ I want to listen to what he’s saying. This may be an instance where you want to hear past the background noise or distraction and listen to what the person is saying.

All of these examples show how you might use this phrase in everyday conversation.

There’s Always Exceptions To The Rules

The point of this episode is to explain that rules are often meant to be broken and there are always exceptions.

We’ve talked about this before, but it’s often hard to know when it’s okay and when it’s not.

What should you do if you hear a broken rule?

  1. Listen for more examples: Have you heard it broken before? When? What did the situations have in common? Try and YouTube for more examples or listen closely to find out if you are hearing a pattern or just a one time thing. Are these chunks or stand alone?
  2. Think about it in an existential way: Try to consider a few options to look deeper into the issue or broken rule. Could the focus be on the speaker but they may be trying to accomplish something with their word choice?
  3. Learn the rules again: Be sure that sure you know them, and that you know them well. Then break them even though it goes against everything that you know and believe. Try it out–ask a friend if what you are saying makes sense.


Often we have to learn the perfect way to say or do something before we can add our own flair and style.

Language is no different and you have to remember that!

At your level, you may be ready to break some of the rules.

Though it may feel unusual for you, try it out and see how it feels–this may help you to speak English much more comfortably and like the natives.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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