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When do we use "ascoltare" and when "sentire"? Are there specific phrases with each?

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"Sentire" means "to hear"; "ascoltare" means "to listen". You can hear something without being listening but not the contrary (except when the verb is used metaphorically, e.g. "to be listening to the sound of silence").

Hearing a sound implies that your ears can receive it and transmit it to your brain which is perceiving it (auditory perception); listening to something implies an act of will, you are intentionally paying attention to a given sound because you are trying to interpret its meaning or importance in the context.

"Sentire" can also have different meanings such as "to feel", "to smell", "to sense", etc.

This is how Treccani puts it:

  • sentire v. tr. [lat. sĕntire] (io sènto, ecc.). – «In senso ampio, avvertire un qualsiasi stato di coscienza indotto in noi dal mondo esterno attraverso i sensi o un qualsiasi stato affettivo insorgente nell’animo. Nella varietà degli usi e delle particolari accezioni, i sign. fondamentali del verbo si possono ricondurre a questi tre: avvertire una percezione; avvertire una sensazione; provare un sentimento»

  • ascoltare v. tr. [lat. volg. *ascŭltare per il class. auscŭltare] (io ascólto, ecc.). – 1. Udire con attenzione, stare a udire […] 2. Dare retta, seguire i consigli o gli ammonimenti dati […] 3. In medicina, compiere l’esame fisico d’un malato con l’orecchio (più com. auscultare).

Something more here.

Also Wikipedia has an article on that: «While hearing is a biological process that can be scientifically explained, listening is a neurological cognitive regarding the processing of auditory stimuli received by the auditory system»; «Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act»; «Hearing is always occurring, most of the time subconsciously. Listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves. Listening can be understood on three levels: alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how the sound affects the listener» (cit.).

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Maybe these examples may clarify your doubts about this.

"(Io) Mi sento bene." = "I feel good / I'm feeling good."

"(Io) Ho sentito che [sth]." = "I heard that [sth]."

"Senti, dovresti fare [sth]." = "Listen, you should do [sth]."

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