By Eve Ross - Beijing Institute of Machinery, China
A teacher has a problem, "We have two Hong Kong Chinese students staying with us in Australia. One of them consistently mixes up 'tomorrow' and 'yesterday'. So why do the Chinese have such trouble between two totally different words which apparently have specific Chinese counterparts?"
I would be careful about generalizing from a small research sample. It is probably not safe to say that all, or even most Chinese have serious trouble distinguishing tomorrow from yesterday in English. In almost three months in Beijing, with about 120 students, I've heard one student make this mistake once, and he immediately corrected himself.
But, to try and explain this student's error: tomorrow and yesterday are not totally different. They both refer to a day, immediately adjacent on the calendar to today. Their meaning is the same in every respect but one: past or future.
In my TEFL training courses, a professor told the class that mixing up opposites in the second language is a common error, especially when the opposites are taught at the same time, as in a list. So, if you learn the words for hot and cold in a second language at essentially the same time, it's very easy for them to get switched in your brain as to which means what. This may be what happened to your Chinese exchange student.
The way to be sure to avoid this problem when teaching a second language is to introduce only one word from the pair of opposites at first. Give plenty of examples, have the students become comfortable using it, and only then introduce its opposite.