There are many foreign celebrities here who speak Japanese to a high level, yet when it comes to 発音 (hatsuon, pronunciation) and 抑揚 (yokuyō, intonation), few sound as accomplished as Natalie Emmons. An American singer/songwriter who used to live in Osaka, she made a bit of a name for herself last year thanks to a series of commercials for the hotel metasearch engine Trivago.

Delivering phrases such as ホテル料金比較サイト (hoteru ryōkin hikaku saito, “a price comparison hotel website”) in a native-like fashion, she had many people thinking the adverts were dubbed. They definitely weren’t. The few Japanese sentences she spoke during our interview made that clear. So how has she managed to become so proficient in the language?

“I’ve been focusing on 文法 (bunpō, grammar) a bit more recently, but basically I’ve always been more of an audio-visual learner than a textbook one,” she says. “It’s like when you’re a child — your own language develops naturally from the environment around you, then later you go to school and learn why it’s structured that way.

“I’ve taken a similar approach to Japanese, partly because I’m like a kid who gets distracted easily, but also because watching TV and listening to music is a more enjoyable way to study. I’ve recently gotten into [Fuji TV drama] 最高の離婚 (Saikō no Rikon, “Great Divorce”), which is useful because it’s mostly 日常会話 (nichijō kaiwa, everyday conversation), and being on Netflix, I can pause it to look up phrases.”

Emmons says she started out watching anime from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, “then dramas like 花より男子 (Hana Yori Dango, “Boys Over Flowers”). This kind of entertainment can be good for advanced learners and beginners, as you can get used to the sound of Japanese even if you require 英語字幕 (Eigo jimaku, English subtitles). It’s similar with Japanese songs: You might not understand all the words, but you hear repeated patterns, which really helps.”

It was music that first brought Emmons to the country in 2010 after she earned a contract with Universal Studios Japan. She practiced at karaoke booths, which gave her a better understanding of the songs as she could read the 歌詞 (kashi, lyrics). Performing live, she covered a range of J-pop stars, including her favorite, Angela Aki.

サクラ色 (Sakura-iro, meaning “color of the cherry blossoms”) was the track she sang most, but it was a line from Aki’s song 手紙 ~拝啓 十五の君へ~ (Tegami: Haikei Jū-go no Kimi e, “Letter: Greetings to a 15-year-old”) that really struck a chord with the California-born entertainer, with lyrics like 人生の全てに意味があるから、恐れずにあなたの夢を育てて (Jinsei no subete ni imi ga aru kara, oserezu ni anata no yume o sodatete, “As everything in life has meaning, nurture your dreams without fear”).

“I’ve been extremely fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had, but there have also been failures and times when I’ve just been waiting for a call that never comes. That is when you need to be strong and keep believing,” Emmons says.

Her perseverance was rewarded in 2012 when she made her debut on the NTV show のどじまんザ!ワールド (Nodo-jiman Za! Wārudo — literally, “Singing Contest: The World”). The recent Trivago ads have arguably had even an bigger impact, leading to more commercial work with language study firm Speed Learning.

“All the crew were Japanese, so filming was different from Trivago,” she says. “At times it felt a bit like ‘Lost in Translation.’ They wanted a ‘thinking pose.’ I wrinkled my forehead and scrunched my face, but they kept saying もっと考えてる感じ (Motto kangaeteru kanji, “Even more like you’re thinking”). I haven’t seen it yet so I’m not sure how it turned out [laughs].”

With more TV work likely to follow, Emmons admits she now “feels extra pressure” when speaking Japanese because expectations have risen. It’s given her greater motivation to study, as she doesn’t want to disappoint people.

“It becomes a 伸るか反るか (Noru ka soru ka, “Sink or swim”) kind of situation,” Emmons explains. “While I’ll often say ペラペラじゃないですけど大体分かります (Pera-pera janai desukedo daitai wakarimasu, “I generally understand, but I’m not fluent”), it is important to keep challenging yourself so you can reach that next level.”

So what advice does she have for those people looking to make that step up? “Memorize long sentences or try writing short stories. Go to events where nobody speaks English. Beforehand write things down you want to say. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of the process.

“I’ve always feared being in situations where I won’t know what to say, but it’s important to put yourself in those difficult positions to get over your anxieties. Recently on the NHK program ‘Doki Doki! World TV’ they told me I could speak English, but I was adamant it had to be in Japanese.”

Asked to sing a cappella on the show, Emmons performed Ayaka’s hit 三日月 (Mikazuki, “Crescent Moon”). Her latest single is an original track written by artist Shin Murayama (who discovered her on YouTube) titled 到着口 (Tōchaku Guchi, “Arrival Gate”). It sounds like a romantic song about two lovers reunited at the airport, yet for Emmons it’s more about the feeling she gets when she comes back to Japan: 自分らしくいられる場所に戻ってきた (Jibun-rashiku irareru basho ni modotte kita, “I’ve returned to the place where I can be myself.”)

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