1

I don’t understand the meaning and usage of mal in this sentence:

Zuerst will ich mal mein Deutsch verbessern.

What of a difference would it make if there would be no mal?

5

In this sentence the word »mal« is a modal particle.

In German there is a part of speach that doesn't exist in English: Modal particles. I have written about those words as an answer to another question: Modal particles

The best way to translate those words into any other language is to ignore them.

A modal particle for itself has no own meaning. It just influences the emotion that is transported with the sentence.

Those words emphasize the meaning of a sentence. One very important thing to know about modal particles ist, that 100 % of them have homonymes that are not modal particles. This makes it very hard for non-native-speakers to understand them, because when you look for the meaning of »mal«, »doch«, »aber«, »ja« and so on, you will always find the meaning of the non-modal twin.

  • 1
    “The best way to translate those words into any other language is to ignore them.” – That’s a very dangerous recommendation … – chirlu May 15 '15 at 17:16
  • 1
    It is what is done in the subtitles of most TV series / movies / learning material videos that I have seen. Usually you can infer the emotional value of the particle in a video by the speech and visual context anyway. – Alan Evangelista Apr 18 at 5:14
2

Mal can be used in this form to give a casual quality to an utterance or some of emphasization. Actually it doesn’t make a lot of difference if you take it out of the sentence.

The two German words: halt, eben give out the same or a similar meaning.

1

I'm not super happy with the above answers. I agree that those small interjected words usually don't have a meaning in themselves and you could leave them out, but the tone of the sentence changes (see @chirlu comment to the @HubertSchölnast answer), especially in your example:

  • Zuerst will ich [] mein Deutsch verbessern. Gives off the impression that the person speaking is actually quite serious about improving their German, before tackling something else that German might be required for, e. g. a job.
  • Zuerst will ich mal mein Deutsch verbessern. The person speaking is not quite so serious about it, maybe taking a short summer course before starting an Erasmus semester that you don't really need German for anyway (the "casual quality" that @alixander stated in his answer).
  • Zuerst will ich halt mein Deutsch verbessern. Sounds a little strange and probably wouldn't be used that way, because (to me?) it implies a lack of enthusiasm, which doesn't quite fit with the "[ich] will [...] mein Deutsch verbessern".
  • Zuerst will ich eben mein Deutsch verbessern. Similar to the first one, but you'd expect some sort of logical reasoning beforehand that comes to the conclusion that the speaker wants to improve their German. Somewhat related to the expression "weil eben" meaning "just because".
  • Zuerst will ich ja mein Deutsch verbessern. Implies a form of opposition to what has been said before, e. g. if another person were surprised for the speaker to have decided to take German classes.

All in all, it always depends on the situation and they never have the exact same meaning. It is probably also very hard to learn those words from reading because they are used way more often in spoken language [citation needed ;-)].

  • "Zuerst will ich halt mein Deutsch verbessern" sounds like a justification (e.g. for postponing some other activity). – Klaus Draeger Jul 12 '16 at 14:13
0

It may mean nothing in particular at all but it may also imply that there are second thoughts, often with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek meaning as well:

Zunächst will ich einmal mein Deutsch verbessern.

Oh wait a moment, did I accidentially say "einmal" instead of "mal"? That's right because this is what the somewhat sloppy, colloquial "mal" stands for.

Now, if there is a "first", there probably (implied) is a "second", too:

Zunächst will ich einmal mein Deutsch verbessern.
Dann mache ich mir Sorgen darum, wie ich die Welt regiere.

  • When you use the unshortened form, it sounds better, when writing/saying Zunächst einmal will ich .. because this accentuates the bullet-point character. Leaving out einmal or mal does not change the meaning, however, so it is mostly a filler word. – Chieron Jul 13 '16 at 8:41
  • @Chieron: In a different context, I'd agree, e.g.: "Ich geh mal schell zum Supermarkt". Of course you're only going once, so it's kind of pointless to state it. Here, the best meaning apart from fill word would be something like "nebenbei", weighting down the importance (esp. "mal eben"). But in the context given in the Q, it almost always appears in a situation like: "Well duh, thanks for reminding me, genius. But first, I need to..." – Damon Jul 13 '16 at 10:13
  • nowhere did I say that einmal would mean once here - it doesn't. It's just more common to move (ein)mal directly behind zunächst/zuerst/erst. And it never truly changes the meaning of the sentence. mal in Ich geh mal schnell zum Supermarkt is not short for einmal, btw. – Chieron Jul 13 '16 at 11:20
  • @Chieron: Indeed it does not, which is what I meant to say by "pointless", it has no meaning in that context. With that said, Duden doesn't seem to agree. I just felt super smart and looked, they indeed say: "klein geschrieben die verkürzte Form des sogenannten Abtönungspartikels einmal ". So officially, it indeed means "once", even in a context where you'd say: "means nothing". Sadly, Duden is authorative, what's written in the Duden is correct... (they ruined the language so much in '96!) even when every native speaker will disagree. – Damon Jul 14 '16 at 12:11
  • einmal is not once, the translation is not complete (there are meanings of either word which have no correspondence in the other language). As for the reform of 1996 - I agree with many points there, but not with all (the changes could've been more rigorous, still many exceptions). However, as Hubert Schönast will also tell you, the Duden is no longer authorative (and never was in Austria). – Chieron Jul 14 '16 at 12:21

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