How to teach country and nationality words

Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for helping students France/ French, Switzerland/ Swiss, etc.

It’s difficult to get through an oral communication class without students needing country and nationality words like “USA”, “Germany”, “Chinese” and “North Korea” to talk about travels, current affairs, shopping, language studies and using English in their real lives. Although typical mistakes like “My sister’s boyfriend is Netherlandish X” and pronunciation problems like “I lived for two years in BRAzil X” are unlikely to cause communication problems, the sheer ubiquity of this language can make a lesson or two on “Indonesia”/ “Indonesian” etc well worth your while, perhaps tied into language points like:

  • can/ can’t
  • comparing (comparative adjectives, etc)
  • cultural differences
  • food and drink
  • have/ have got
  • likes and dislikes
  • modals of probability/ possibility/ deduction
  • Present Perfect for experiences
  • word stress


Student problems with country and nationality words

One common problem with this vocabulary is simply not knowing the English country and/ or nationality words, e.g. never having come across the words “Dutch” or “Georgia” before. Perhaps more common, however, is knowing the English words but slipping back into forms which are closer to L1 like “Francese” in freer communication. L1 interference and lack of knowledge can also be the reason for mixing the two forms up in sentences like “I want to visit Swiss next year” and “I love Australia animals”, but again it is more likely to be a slip up made due to the demands of thinking and speaking in real time. These kinds of slips seem to be more likely with country and nationality word pairs that are similar to each other such as “German”/ “Germany”, suggesting a processing error rather than a misunderstanding. In contrast, the overuse of nationality words for languages such as “I can speak Brazilian X” tends to be due to lack of cultural knowledge.

When it comes to pronouncing the words, one common issue is vowel sounds, specifically vowel sounds which are different in L1 and English and vowel sounds which are different in English spelling and speaking, such as in “Swedish” and “Russian”. An issue that mixed nationality classes are more likely to share is word stress problems like “iTAly”. This is most commonly a problem when the stress is different in the country/ language being referred to and in English, as in “Brazil”. Another common problem is when the stress is different in the English country word and the English nationality word, as in “Italy” and “Italian”.

Many nationalities also have a problem with English use of capital letters in country and (especially) nationality words, perhaps understandable when you think about how rare it is to have an adjective with capital letters, even in English.


What to teach about country and nationality words

There are a few patterns in nationality words such as “-ese” endings often being used for Asian countries, “-i” usually being Arabic and/ or Middle Eastern, and quite a few examples of “-land” changing to “-ish”. However, there are exceptions to all of these such as “Portuguese” and “Icelandic”, so in general students just need to learn useful nationality words one by one. There are also no useful rules for word stress. The use of capital letters, however, does have a simple rule – all countries, nationalities and languages need capital letters in English, meaning that while they are dealing with this topic they need capital letters all the time.


How to decide which country and nationality words to introduce

I would present a mix of these kinds of country and nationality words:

  • Ones that students already know but perhaps aren’t aware that they do, e.g. “Danish” if they already know what an “apple Danish” is but had never thought about the origins of its name
  • Ones for which it is difficult to spot or remember if they are adjectives or place names, e.g. “France/ French” and “Swiss”
  • At least two with each common nationality ending, e.g. at least two each of “-ese”, “-an”, “-i” and “-ish”
  • Ones which are very different in L1 and English, especially ones which could be confused with each other such as “Dutch” and “German”
  • Ones which they probably know but are likely to have problems pronouncing

Particularly with classes who would have already done this topic at a lower level, I also often add a couple of interesting exceptions like “Icelandic” and/or informal ones like “Aussie” and “Kiwi”.

When teaching a monolingual class I start the process of planning a class by making a list of words that they are likely to have problems constructing and/ or pronouncing such as “Croatia”. However, this tends to make a list that is too big to present in one class. I therefore then select from that list. In addition to using the criteria above, I try to present countries which students are likely to want to speak about, mainly meaning:

  • English-speaking countries
  • Large and/ or important countries
  • Nearby countries
  • Countries that are often or have recently been in the news
  • Their most common holiday destinations


Particularly with teenagers who are studying geography in their other classes, this topic can also be an opportunity to introduce students to countries that they didn’t even know the existence of but probably should have such as “Kyrgyzstan”. However, you’ll need to have a map, list of neighbouring countries that they know about, pictures of famous people, connections between that country and their own, etc ready to make sure they understand where you are talking about and care enough about it to remember it later.

You might also decide to introduce places which are not (exactly/ presently) countries such as “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland”, “Tibet” and “Hawaii”, the first three of which I tend to introduce in the same way of any other words but ready to draw and explain GB and the UK if questions come up. You could introduce adjectives for bigger and smaller groups of people like “East Asian”, “North American”, “Parisian”, “Londoner” and “Tokyoite” along with actual nationality words if you want to.

There are also of course nouns for people from particular countries such as “an Englishman” and “a Swede”, but this are easily avoided in speech and even native speakers don’t tend to know them for all countries that they talk about, so I only teach a few of these and only in high level classes, often along with regional words like “New Yorker”, “Brummie” and “Scouser”.

Finally, if you want to practice the names of languages such as “French” and “Swahili” along with nationality adjectives, you will need to decide what to do with countries which have several official languages and countries which have different nationality words and (dominant/ official) languages such as “Switzerland/ Swiss/ German/ French/ etc”. The options are:

  • To only cover countries where languages and nationality words are the same such as “German” and “Spanish”
  • To mainly cover countries where languages and nationality words are the same and then introduce a few exceptions such as “Canadian” with “English”/ “French”
  • To start with a list of all the useful country words which are mentioned in the criteria above, then eliminate any which would bring up particularly difficult or useless language words
  • Not to specifically present or practise language words and deal with them as they come up in communicative tasks (my usual preferred option)


How to present and practise country and nationality words

Students are usually easily able to spot which are country words and which are nationality words in sentences like “I went to Belgium last week”, “My cousin lives in South Africa” and “I bought a Korean car for the first time in 1991”. However it’s difficult to find or make a text that has enough suitable examples of the words in context and also sounds natural. Therefore, I tend to get them to use the language straight off with some help and then present it later. For example, I often give them a list of useful country and nationality words to communicate with in one of the speaking activities below and then test them on the words that they just saw when the game has finished. Some simpler guessing games like the one below also work in this way.


Country and nationality simplest responses game

Students listen to words and raise the “Nationality” card or the “Country” card that they have been given depending on which kind of word they think they have heard. At the practice stage this can be done with just individual words like “Swiss” and “Belgian”. However, you should prepare some context like “I love Swiss chocolate” and “Tintin is the most famous Belgian character” to help. If you have those kinds of sentences, you can also use this game in the presentation stage. It can also be useful to read out some sentences with the nationality and country words missing for students to guess what kind of word is missing, e.g. holding up the “Country” card when they hear “I’ve never been to BLANK”. After the listening to the teacher and holding up cards stage, students can label the same sentences on a worksheet with “C” for “country” and “N” for “nationality”, then test each other in the same way.


Country and nationality drilling games

Country and nationality stations

At its most basic, this game is just a more physical version of the Simplest Responses Game above in which students listen to words or sentences and run to the ends of the room marked “Country” and “Nationality” depending on what they hear. If this is too physical, they can throw things at two walls or targets, pretend to shoot them, point, touch two different parts of their body, or make two different gestures. This can also be turned into more of a drilling game by having walls, targets etc marked with nationality endings like “-ish” and “-ian” for students to identify when they hear country words like “Sweden” and “Norway”, something that can work for up to six options.


Country and nationality tennis/ volleyball

Perhaps while actually knocking a ball back and forth, students “serve” with a country word and see if their partner can “return” with the correct nationality word, continuing until someone makes a mistake or pauses too long, at which point the other side scores a point. The opposite side then serves. You’ll need to decide if (particularly) bad pronunciation also counts as a mistake, and perhaps add the rule that it’s only a mistake if the side which served knew the right nationality word (i.e. weren’t setting a challenge that they couldn’t do themselves). If you are using a real ball, you’ll also need to decide what to do about bad shots, catching the ball, pausing for thought, etc. This game also works with country word then nationality then language, with any official language in their country being acceptable for the third. It could also even be done with “Finland”, “Finnish”, “A Finn” and “Finnish”.


Country and nationality words pelmanism

Prepare a pack of cards made up entirely or mainly of countries which take the most common endings when changed to nationality words, e.g. “Taiwan”, “Serbia”, “Denmark” and 20 or 30 other words that would end in “-ese”, “-(i)an” and “-ish”. Students lay the cards face down across the table and take turns trying to pick two countries which have the same endings when changed into nationality words, e.g. “Ukraine” and “Georgia” because they would both end in “-(i)an”. If the two cards don’t match, they put the cards back face down in the same positions and play passes to the next person.

Another possibility is “Random Pelmanism”, where students try to make a single sentence including the country or nationality word versions of the places on both cards that they turned over, whatever the cards are. For example, if they picked “Sweden” and “Denmark” they could say “They are both in Scandinavia” or “Swedish meatballs are more famous than Danish meatballs”.

Although I’ve never tried it, this game could also work with a match being two words with the same number of syllables and/ or word stress. This would work with:

  • Comparing the syllables and/ or word stress of the (country or nationality) words on the cards
  • Comparing the syllables and/ or word stress of the nationality versions of the country words on the cards (e.g. three syllables for “Norway” because its nationality word is “Norwegian”)


Country and nationality words snap

This can be played with the same cards as Pelmanism above, but is a much faster game. Students deal out all the cards and take their own pack but can’t look at them. They take turns turning over the top card from their pack and putting it down face up on the table. When the last two cards to be put on the table both take the same ending when they are changed to nationality words, e.g. “Venezuela” and “Argentina” because they both take “-(i)an”, the first person to shout “Snap” wins all the cards which have been put on the table so far. If anyone shouts “Snap” when the two cards don’t match, they give away two of their cards to the other player(s) as a punishment. The person who gets all the cards or has the most cards when the teacher stops the game wins.

As with Pelmanism above, this would also work with the match being number of syllables and/ or word stress instead of the word endings.


Country and nationality words Reversi

Make cards which have a country word on one side and a matching nationality word on the other, including as many as possible where both of the words might cause some kind of problem such as “The Czech Republic” and “Czech”. You could also mark the number of syllables and/ or word stress on both sides if you want to focus on the pronunciation.

Students spread all the cards across the table, either side up. Students take turns guessing what is on the other side of as many cards as they can, stopping when they make a mistake. The next person can repeat the same cards as they just saw their partner do, choose new (and perhaps easier) cards, or (probably) do a mix of the two. Any cards which were guessed correctly stay turned over so that they have to be tried in the opposite direction next time. The winner can either be the person with most correct guesses added up over the length of the game, or the person with the longest single string of correct guesses without a mistake (e.g. 12 cards in a row).


Countries and nationalities communicative activities

Countries and nationalities bluffing games

I particularly like lying games with this topic because students might not be able to think about anything real to say about, say, Luxembourg or Malta. There are many variations, including:

  • Students taking a country card and making a true or false statement using that word or the nationality word version of it (as they choose), e.g. “I hate French bread” for the card saying “France”
  • Students taking a country or nationality card and making a true or false statement using (exactly) that word
  • Students secretly flipping a coin to decide if they should say something true (heads) or false (tails) and/ or if they should use a country word (heads) or nationality word (tails) (with their own choice of country and nationality each time)
  • Students rolling a dice to decide which nationality ending they should use in their true or false sentence (“1 = -(i)an, 2 = -ish” etc)
  • Students rolling a dice to decide if they should use a country or nationality word and if they should say something true or false (“1 = true statement with a country word,… 4 = false statement with a nationality word, 5 or 6 = free choice”)
  • Students rolling a dice to decide what kind of sentence stem they should use in their true or false sentence (“1 = I want to visit…, 2 = I love…, 3 = I have (a/ an)…”, etc)
  • Students rolling a dice to decide what topic they should make a true or false sentence about (“1 = food and drink, 2 = travel, 3 = languages” etc)
  • Students completing a gapped sentence or sentence stem to make a true or false statement (“I went to __________ a couple of years ago”, “I’d like to buy a _____________ car”, etc)
  • Students giving true or false answers to questions like “What’s your favourite foreign food?” and “Where would you go on your honeymoon if you could go anywhere you like?”
  • Students answering “Yes” to all Yes/ No questions like “Have you been to Australia?” and “Do you have any New Zealand honey in your kitchen now?”, even if their real answer would be “No”

In all the games, the other students then guess if the statement was true or false, probably after asking questions to get more details. Alternatively, you can get students to do some research and write down true and false statements about a country and the people living in it for other groups to read or listen to and try to spot the false info.


Countries and nationalities personalised statements guessing games

Students try to make true (positive or negative) sentences about each other using the country and nationality words on a worksheet or cards like “You’ve never been to Mongolia”, “You know the names of some Mongolian sumo wrestlers” and “You can’t cook Mongolian food”. To make sure that students use a range of language and don’t just say “You have(n’t) been to…” each time, you’ll probably need a list of suitable sentence stems that can only be used once each.


Country and nationality words make me say yes

This is like a questions version of the guessing game above. Students get one point each time they get a positive answer to questions like “Have you ever eaten German sausages?” and “Do you know anyone who lives in Canada?” Perhaps as an extension, the game also works well with one point for “No” answers or one point for “I don’t know” answers.


Countries and nationalities sentence completion guessing games

Give students at least 15 sentence stems that take country and nationality words such as “A member of my family lives in ______________” and “I often buy _____________ cheese”. Students complete at least half of the sentences with true information, then read out just the word they wrote in one of the gaps, e.g. “Indian”. Their partners then guess which sentence they put that word into.


Country and nationality words things in common

Students try to find statement that are true for both of them like “We both tried to study Greek but gave up” and “We have both been to Thailand more than once”. This activity usually doesn’t need a game element to be stimulating, but you could give one point for each thing they find in common which none of the other groups came up with.


Country and nationality word discussion questions

This topic doesn’t seem at first thought to lend itself particularly well to serious discussion, but it is possible to make questions which have country or nationality words in the questions and/ or prompt them in the answers such as “What do you think about the Japanese work ethic?”, “Would you visit Myanmar on holiday (despite…)?” and “What country has a social security system that you think your country could learn from?” If the country and nationality words are in the questions, you could then test them on their memory of those forms.


Country and nationality word presentation topics

Similar to discussion questions above, presentation topics can include suitable words and/ or be designed to elicit them in the speaking, e.g. “Malaysian food”, “Swedish design” or “The best work-life balance in the world”.


Countries and nationalities list dictation

This game is nice for drilling country and nationality words, also adds English names and pronunciations of things students might be familiar with from those countries like “spaghetti Bolognese” (or “spag bol” if you want to be very English), and also leads into some extra cultural knowledge of those places such as companies from each place. The teacher reads out a list of things from one country such as “croissants”, “Eiffel tower” and “beret”. Students listen (without writing anything down) until someone can guess the country. They get five points, then they and other people in the class get one point for each sentence they can say with the things the teacher said earlier with the right nationality word (“Croissants are French” etc).


Country and nationality words Pictionary

Students draw things, symbols, maps, flags etc to represent “Tajikistan”, “It’s a German car” and “Pizza is Italian” until the people watching say and/ or write the correct sentence. The prompts can be sentences on a worksheet, or they can be phrases or single words on cards. You can also use a coin or dice in a similar way to the bluffing games above.


Country and nationality brainstorming races

Students race to write down or shout out country words or nationality words that match the category that the teacher has just said such as “Official languages of the EU”, “Nationalities which can enter the US without a visa” and “Countries in Central America”. As you might have noticed from these examples, it is quite tricky to think of categories that elicit nationality words, especially if you aren’t covering the topic of languages. Therefore another option is to get students brainstorming pairs of country and nationality words, e.g. ones which end in “-ian” or ones in North Africa.

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Written by Alex Case for

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