Let me start off this post by saying that I am not a monkey. That's right. I'm not a gaijin monkey who performs for the student during lessons to entertain them. It's not that the students and I don't have a laugh from time to time, but it's not because I'm slapping fins together and balancing balls on my nose. My demeanor with students is very casual and relaxed. I ask them questions or have them do textbook material and I allow them the time to answer and speak. Occasionally, they volunteer a question and I answer. That all sounds pretty natural for lessons in language practice, but you'd be surprised how many people treat it like monkey hour.
I feel it was necessary to get that out of the way before I say that one of my students told me at the end of a lesson today his English lesson was the happiest time of his week for him. If you think this is my way of boasting, then I will also add that this fellow currently has a very difficult life situation. His mother is ill and he has to take care of her and his sister is in the hospital dying from the big "C". It's not like I've got a lot of competition in the happiness department.
That being said, I do believe that, for several of my students, having lessons with me serves a meaningful purpose in their lives which has little to do with language skill improvement. Since returning to private teaching after a little over a decade of office work, I've come to realize that there are some people for whom their English lessons are a psychological lifeline. They offer a type of interaction and mental stimulation which they cannot find elsewhere in their lives. In particular, students who are opinionated and outspoken have a chance to speak out to someone who isn't going to judge them or ostracize them for their ideas.
Like many people around the world, a lot of my students spend their time working and operating in relatively small circles. They have friends, but they can't always have the types of conversations with friends that they need or want because they have to keep certain things to themselves in order to not be considered strange or risk being ostracized. One thing I've had to adjust to is the idea that having a conversation lesson which is just me sitting down with a person with an emotional need, having a cup of tea or coffee and "having a chat" isn't shirking my responsibility as a teacher. The fact of the matter is that I'm accepting that some of my students need more of a therapeutic encounter than a boost to their English skills. This is particularly so for some of the older, unmarried ones.
The truth is that these types of lessons, depending on the student can be much harder or much easier than doing a real lesson plan with a textbook there to provide structure, direction and momentum. When you're responsible week in and week out for carrying on a "chat" with the same person who has no obligation whatsoever to initiate anything, you have to work hard to make sure there's something to talk about. For the aforementioned student who said his English lessons were the happiest time of his week, I often have to do 20 minutes or more of preparation to make sure I have enough current event and topical information on hand to keep the "chat" alive. After 75 conversations with the same person, it's not so easy to avoid retreading the same talking points territory.
Right now, the student I am focusing on in this post is incredibly lonely because both his mother and sister are in the hospital, though he isn't the only one who I believe comes to me for social interaction more so than skill building. He spends his days at home or visiting his relatives or hanging around his house with nothing to do. He says his other friends are still working either part-time jobs or full-time, but he's not able to pursue such things because of his age and familial responsibilities. I have a sense right now that I'm pretty much all he's got to perk him up these days and that makes me sad for him.
I think a lot of people who take English lessons are fulfilling a range of emotional needs that can't be fulfilled in their lives otherwise, but the fact that they are doing so isn't nearly as obvious as a few of my students. I wonder if the structure English language learning in Japan has been built around this need just as much or more than the need to improve language skills which are so poorly taught here. In a country where people are always saying "do your best" (gambatte), going to a psychiatrist is uncommon, and putting on a false happy face is common, and where there is a fair bit of conformity and homogeneity, English teachers may be performing a variety of therapeutic services including exposure to cultural diversity, companionship, intellectual stimulation and cathartic expression.