The chinese languages are indeed languages and not dialects for the following reasons:
1. They are not intelligible to each other if one is hearing them for the first time.
2. Each of the main chinese languages have their own dialects which are more intelligible with each other and with common characteristics.
For example, "ay sai" for "can" is common to most of the "min" dialects.
"hai" for "yes" is common to most of the "cantonese" dialects.
But the chinese languages are not different unrelated languages, they are RELATED languages for the following reasons:
1. A large proportion of the sounds are derived from the same vocabulary but with slightly different pronounciation. For example, "fang" in mandarin, "fong" in cantonese, "hong" in hokkien.
2. It is much easier to learn another chinese language when one knows the chinese characters.
3. It has a similar grammatical structure based on tones, classifiers and monosyllabic, subject-verb-noun order etc.
The chinese languages are related and are a branch of the sino-tibetan language family which is similar to the indo-european language family.
Sino-tibetan language family have 3 main branches:
1. Sino branch - cantonese, mandarin, hakka, hokkien, wu etc (compare to germanic branch)
2. Tibetan/burmese (compare to indo branch)
3. Tai/laos (compare to latin branch) (adjectives come after the noun)
It can be argued that vietnamese may belong to tai branch.
Thanks Xng this is such a perfect way to put it to words.... this is excellent information and i totally agree that the Chinese variations are different languages.