As someone who has been programming for a living for twenty years, I have to say that C++ sure is very powerful and popular, but the choice of programming language does depend a lot on what you want to do - if you just want to get a feel for what can be done you may be discouraged by tackling one of the most complex and demanding languages (in my humble opinion) straight off.
You can also download free versions of development software from Microsoft, and from open source organisations (Eclipse, Netbeans).
Having said that, if you want to get seriously stuck in or make a career of it, I cannot recomend highy enough a visit to the programming books section of a bricks-and-mortar bookshop (or your library if it's big enough). If you do this you can check out the books on programming and choose one that has the right level of detail for you. (1200 pages of fine print versus 100 pages, lots of colour diagrams and step-by-step guides.) I find Amazon is good, but no comparison against actually doing a hands-on selection.
About six months ago I started on a Java beginners book that I found to be brilliant, it is "Head First Java". On the other hand you can get everything you need for Java (but not laid out so well and presented in such an interesting way), from the Sun developer website. Ok Java is as complex as C++ but when you are ready to move on then that book is a good place to start.
Whatever you do, do get good materials. Just ploughing through some manuals may put you off before you've gotten started. Also there are lots of courses available, many free on the web. Google an enjoy!
Edited by bad_mouse, 26 November 2007 - 04:38 PM.