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Meet the last speaker of a near-extinct language

STORY: No one else in the world can speak this language.

Katrina Esau is the only known person fluent in N|uu.

It's one of a group of indigenous South African languages all but stamped out by decades of colonialism and apartheid.

But at 90 years old, Esau doesn't relish being its sole protector.

“It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel good. You talk, you walk, you know, you talk, you miss … you miss someone who can just sit with you and speak N|uu with you.”

N|uu was spoken by one of many hunter-gatherer groups that populated Southern Africa before the arrival of European colonizers.

These indigenous people spoke dozens of languages in the San family, many of which have gone extinct.

As a child, Esau says, people mocked N|uu as an "ugly language".

"We became ashamed when we were young girls, and we stopped speaking the language."

Instead she spoke Afrikaans, the language promoted by South Africa's white minority rulers.

Later in life she realized the importance of preserving her mother tongue.

She started teaching N|uu to local children and opened a school with her granddaughter and language activist Claudia Snyman.

But the school property was vandalized during the global health crisis, and now lies abandoned.

Snyman says her grandmother's health has been poor recently, and she fears that if Esau dies her work to protect the language will have been in vain.

“You lose everything. Your identity, your heritage, your entire existence, so to speak. Because, what is a nation without a language? What is a person without language?”

Esau has two living sisters but they do not speak N|uu.

She does not know anyone else who does - save for the family members and children to whom she has taught a few words and phrases.

At a recent ceremony at the University of Cape Town, she was awarded an honorary doctorate for the work she is doing to preserve the language and culture.

“I love my language. I love the N|uu language a lot, and because of that reason, I don’t want it to die. I want it to live on.”