We hear English spoken by non-native speakers everywhere, on the train, on the street, in a restaurant etc. Everybody speaks English hinting their cultural backgrounds. If a German says “a handy (Handy)” most likely he means “a mobile phone” rather than “useful” or “convenient to use”. If the French say “next Sunday” which might mean “this Sunday”. If the Japanese say “I will be thinking about it.”, it might mean “I do not want to talk about it any more.” You never know whether they mean it in an English way, or in their cultural way in English. So you can imagine the misunderstandings that arise when non-native speakers get together.
When I was at an international conference a few months ago, to work as an English Japanese whispering interpreter, it was so difficult to adjust the English each time a speaker changed. Some speakers read aloud their prepared speech. Usually they forget to breathe between the sentences. (They must have practised reading aloud so many times!) Others had such strong accents that few people could work out which language they were speaking. However, nobody said “I do not understand you.” because they were in the same situation… that of a non-native speaker. Then came an American speaker. Strangely, the English spoken by a native speaker is not always the easiest to comprehend. And yet few people asked the speaker to stop and explain a point. How many people can understand the speech straightaway without getting clarification? I’d venture very few. It is not easy to concentrate on a speech of 30 minutes or more on a technical subject without having some background information. People will respond and engage once they understand but sometimes, out of politeness or embarrassment, they won’t ask questions. This leaves us interpreters with a problem. It’s not our place to stop the speakers and make sure everyone has understood. Of course this would be difficult to do in a conference, but in a small meeting don’t be afraid to ask questions.