"Mal sehen, was da drin ist."
Translation:Let's see what is in there.
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I feel like thinking of "mal" as "once" or "a single time" is helpful for me in understanding its meaning in this example. I takes my brain from something specific and intentional where it's used with a specific number, e.g. "drei mal / three times" to something more casual "mal / a time". As in, "yeah, I guess that's worth a single look at what's inside". It works for me in the other ways I've heard "mal" explained as a softener, or lending a bit more politeness to a command, because it feels like it's more an optional activity than an must-do. I don't actually know if that's correct, it's more just a mnemonic device than anything else.
Again, I think 'mal' means 'time' only in the sense of an occurance, as in "you can go down the slide 2 more times", NOT in the sense of 'then it's time to go home'. That would be Zeit. Just because we use the word 'time' to mean several different concepts in English, doesn't mean every other language does the same.
Mal has another meaning distinct from time. It can be used as a modal particle to imply a more polite or softer tone to a sentence. Used this way, it has no direct translation into English, because English has no modal particles.
An easier to understand example of how mal can be used this way is, "Du musst mal deine Mutter anrufen." Here "mal" conveys the difference between telling someone to call their mother and urging them to call their mother.
IMHO ... Idioms need to be separated from general lessons ... they cause a lot of confusion and maintain an arrogance because many learner will invariably get them wrong because they try to literally translate the sentence. In separate sections, the learner is notified ahead that the translation will not be literal.