Sometimes I find it hard to pronounce letter combinations with л such as лю at the end of the word люблю (or perhaps ля), and it's hard to tell whether or not native speakers are saying 'lyu' or just 'lu'. Is there any secret (other than softening the л) to saying these combos?

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When it comes to pronunciation, "лю" in люблю is like "lu" in illusion if you say it energetically with your lips rounded and protruded. Basically, it's the soft / л / plus an / у / that you say in the front part of your mouth instead of the back part as you'd usually do for аn / у / used in combination with hard consonants.

"Ля" in, for example, Земля, the Earth, is the soft / л / from "лю" plus an open vowel sound / æ / from, for example, land if you say it right in the front part of your mouth and without creating any constrictions to the airflow; try smiling with the corners of your mouth and also relaxing and "dropping" your jaw a bit for better effect.

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