A team of academics from Oxford University have been sent to a remote area of Indonesia in order to save a language spoken by only three people.
The trio are the last people to speak Dusner, an ancient language spoken in a remote fishing village deep in the jungles of Papua, an Indonesian island.
The scientists were nearly too late as recent earthquakes and flooding nearly finished off the community – which still uses the language in ceremonies like marriage – for good.
Researchers from university’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics uncovered the language, and Dr Suriel Mofu set off for Indonesia in October to record and document the language.
But days after he left, flooding hit Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province and the Oxford team could not determine whether or not the Dusner speakers – two woman aged 60, and a man in his 70s – had survived.
Now Dr Mofu has made contact with the Dusner speakers and the 14-month project to record the vocabulary and grammar of the speakers.
Professor Mary Dalrymple, the project’s leader, said: "The flood in Indonesia has been a real tragedy for the inhabitants of this wonderful island and it’s been a nervous few months waiting to hear whether or not our speakers survived.
"But this illustrates why our project is so important – we only found out that this language existed last year, and if we don’t document the language before it dies out, it will be lost forever."
The reason the language has dwindled is that many locals now teach their children Malay as they consider it more useful to get jobs.
But Dusner is still used in ceremonies.
"Our project to record and document this language of Dusner has an urgency about it, because one of its speakers died last year," said Prof Dalrymple.
"The language of Dusner has died out as parents realised that their children have a better chance of going to university or getting a job if they speak Malay, which is Indonesia’s main tongue.
"The remaining Dusner speakers have children of their own, but have not taught them Dusner and so the language will die with them.
"Our project is important to non-Dusner speaking inhabitants of Papua, who want to use Dusner in their sacred wedding and funerary rituals."
It is estimated that half of the 6,000 recorded languages spoken in the world will vanish in the next 50 years.
According to the academics the level of enthusiasm among the Dusner people and the head of the village of Dusner for preserving their language is very high.
The community still perform traditional activities - such as marriage proposals, dowry payment, marriage ceremonies - only the Dusner speakers can use the Dusner language for these occasions.
There is great fear in the community that the people will lose the language when these speakers die.
Since Dusner has never been written, traditional stories and experiences have been passed from one generation to another orally.
Alleyne, Richard. 2011. "Oxford University mission to save a language spoken by three people". Telegraph. Posted: April 21, 2011. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8463840/Oxford-University-mission-to-save-a-language-spoken-by-three-people.html