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When should one use 聴く instead of 聞く? Is there a precise rule for which one to use in which situation?

I have a feeling that 聞 is used more when the source of the sound is a person or other living being, whereas 聴 is reserved for when the source of the sound is a inanimate object. Am I correct?

What about 訊く?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

user1205935 is right but I just want to add a few things.

When I see 聴 my mind basically jumps first to 音楽を聴く. As mentioned this has the meaning of listening to something with some sort of interest in it. You might want to connect it to the word 傾聴, which means "to listen intently," or roughly that. Of course you can use 聞く in that sentence but that kanji has a broader meaning of hearing in general. The difference is basically the same as that between 見る and 観る, as in 犬を見た vs. 映画を観た.

Asking questions has its own dedicated kanji as well: 訊く. You could probably translate this as "inquire," as using that kanji gives it a slightly more refined feel, and I think that this holds true for the others as well. The choice to use these kanji is deliberate and creates extra nuance as to the nature of what you are hearing (vs. listening), seeing (vs. watching), asking (vs. inquiring), etc.

Just a note from the dictionary on the usage of 聴く:

(2)心を落ち着け注意して耳に入れる。傾聴(けいちよう)する。《聴》 「音楽を―・く」

And 訊く:

(4)(「訊く」とも書く)たずねて、答えを求める。問う。 「名前を―・く」「自分の胸に―・く」

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ssb, you're on a freakin' answering rampage lately! – istrasci Mar 13 '13 at 15:48
Aha sorry, I just have extraordinary amounts of free time lately.. maybe I should hold off a little. – ssb Mar 13 '13 at 23:14
@ssb There's nothing wrong with answering! You're helping people :-) – snailplane Mar 14 '13 at 2:43

I think of the difference between 聴く and 聞く as the difference between "to listen" and "to hear". That is,

I'm listening to his story.


I can hear sounds.

If I hear loud noise, I start feeling sick.

(which are examples contrary to your animate/inanimate hypothesis).

Intentional listening should be 聴く, the hearing of sounds should be 聞く.

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Can 聴 also be used for 'to ask' with a similar nuance? – Philip Seyfi Mar 13 '13 at 14:38
actually to ask you might even use 訊く – ssb Mar 13 '13 at 15:02
Since this answer was posted, the asker added 訊く to their question. – snailplane Mar 13 '13 at 15:17
@snailplane Thanks. I was away for an hour, and now it seems I missed all the action. I'll need to add something, or else this answer will just be obsolete. =) – Earthliŋ Mar 13 '13 at 16:13
@downvoter Please leave a comment. – Earthliŋ Mar 15 '13 at 10:22

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