Just as we have two separate words in English for when we use our ears — "to listen" and "to hear" — we have them in Italian, too. There are a few things to know about the two verbs we use: ascoltare and sentire. On a very basic level, ascoltare (to listen) is more active than sentire (to hear).
E Lei non si è messa dietro la porta ad ascoltare?
And you didn't get behind the door to listen in?Play Caption
Ama sentire il rumore dei suoi passi nei corridoi semideserti,
He loves to hear the noise of his steps in the semi-deserted corridors,Play Caption
Signore e signori, è con grande piacere che ascoltiamo la prossima canzone.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that we will listen to the next song.Play Caption
We can just say ascolta (listen)! or ascoltate (listen [pl])! But we often use an object pronoun, too, as in the following example. Note that we sometimes attach the object pronoun and end up with one word. This can happen with the informal version of the imperative. As you will see, the polite form is different.
Allora, ascoltami bene. Tu non c'hai la mamma, stai qua a fare la cameriera a tutti, qualcuno te le dà pure...
Then, listen to me carefully. You don't have a mother, you're here being a maid to everyone, someone even beats you up...Play Caption
If I answer that command, to say, for example, "I am listening to you," then I put the object pronoun first, and it's separate.
I'm listening [to you].Play Caption
When we use the polite form of address, we can't attach the personal pronoun to the verb.
Manara, mi ascolti bene.
Manara, listen to me carefully.Play Caption
We can listen to a person, but we can also listen to sounds, to music, to the radio.
Era mattina presto e ascoltavo la radio.
It was early morning, and I was listening to the radio.Play Caption
We also have the noun form, l'ascolto. We use it with verbs such as dare (to give) or prestare (to lend).
Mamma non mi vuole mandare al concerto. -Non se lo merita. Papà, non le dare ascolto.
Mom doesn't want to let me go to the concert. -She doesn't deserve it. Daddy, don't listen to her.Play Caption
Colleghi e cittadini... -Attenzione, attenzione, prestatemi ascolto.
Colleagues and citizens... -Hear ye, hear ye, lend me your ear.
Captions 62-63, Volare - La grande storia di Domenico Modugno Ep. 1 - Part 15Play Caption
We have already mentioned that sentire is more of a passive verb than ascoltare. It corresponds to the verb "to hear." But that's not all! Sentire has to do with the senses, and the sense of hearing — l'udito — is one of them. But sentire is also used for the sense of smell, the sense of touch, and even the sense of taste sometimes.
Sentire can be used to get someone's attention, for example, in a restaurant when you want to call the waiter or waitress. Although literally, it's "Hear [me]," it's a very common way to say, "Excuse me."
Senta, mi sa dire che ore sono adesso?
Excuse me, can you tell me what time it is now?
Caption 11, Barzellette L'asino che dà l'oraPlay Caption
In the first instance of the man wanting to know the time in the video, he uses mi scusi (excuse me).
Mi scusi, buon uomo. Mi sa dire l'ora, per favore?
Pardon me, my good man. Can you tell me the time, please?
Captions 1-2, Barzellette L'asino che dà l'oraPlay Caption
Senta is a different way of saying the same thing, even though it really means "to hear."
In the following example, on the other hand, it's clear we're talking about hearing.
Come dici? No, no, non ti sento.
What are you saying? No, no, I can't hear you.Play Caption
In the following example, we have translated sentire with "to hear," but, come to think of it, Eva might have been talking about not smelling the potatoes frying. Il risultato non cambia (the result is the same)!
Ferruccio, non sento friggere le patate.
Ferruccio, I don't hear any potatoes frying.
Caption 65, La Ladra EP. 6 - Nero di rabbia - Part 9Play Caption
So sentire presents problems that ascoltare does not. Another issue is that we use sentire very often in its reflexive form, sentirsi. In this case, it means "to feel."
Vi prego, mi sento male!
Please, I'm feeling ill.
Caption 17, La Ladra EP. 7 - Il piccolo ladro - Part 13Play Caption
There's a common expression with sentirsi plus some particles. It's used when you don't feel up to something, and more often than not is used in the negative.
Sì, lo so, ma io ancora non me la sento di affrontare questo argomento.
Yes, I know, but I don't feel up to facing this subject just yet.
Caption 7, La Ladra EP. 8 - Il momento giusto - Part 2Play Caption
Or it can be used in a question: Can you do this? Are you up to it?
Te la senti? and in the polite form: Se la sente?
We have talked about both ascoltare and sentire in a previous lesson, with a different slant, so feel free to check it out!